Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Words: Learning Them and Losing Them

There are essentially two piles of books in our household: Spot's pile and my pile. My wife reads mostly magazines and trade journals, and listens to e-books on the daily commute. I try to read books during Spot's naps, but fear this habit may be facing extinction, which is a source of great stress to me.

So there are basically two piles of books, with smaller offshoot-piles developing in various rooms at any given moment, in addition to the reservoir of those that manage to stay in their assigned place on their assigned bookshelf. Spot's is the more motley pile, with books of all shapes, sizes, and textures -- rubber books, cardboard books, books that float, books with sandpaper and gauzy and scratch-and-sniff patches. At the top of his stack recently have been such titles as Boo-Hoo Baby, Goodnight Gorilla, and Pat the Bunny. In a separate, smaller pile is Llama Llama Mad at Mama, and somewhere under the crib is Bee-bim Bop!

Dad's pile is enough to scare any young mind away from the very prospect of literacy. It is certainly more massive, contains far fewer illustrations, and none of it floats. The royalties from the whole lot of my pile probably don't amount to a single check to the deserving author of Goodnight Gorilla, and in some municipalities might be considered a fire hazard.

Both piles are growing. What is disconcerting about my pile is that it contains a growing number of 600 page tomes that have yet to be opened, with titles like Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy; Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life, and Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution.

A very amateur psychoanalyst friend had no trouble diagnosing me with the bookish version of obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is the intellectual version of eating flies or walking backwards to the bus stop. Or a frustrated academic's version of grandma's cat hoarding. It's not rational. There's simply no way, given my current lifestyle, that I could possibly read these books at the rate that I am acquiring them. My desires are outstripping my abilities.

Meanwhile, Spot is making good use of everything he's got; in fact, it doesn't seem to be quite enough. In addition to chewing on his own books, and whipping the pages back and forth with demonic fervor, he occasionally strays into my pile, seems drawn to the Marxism shelf, and loves Gordon Craig's classic monograph on modern Germany because it falls off the shelf with such a massive, massive thud.

Like most children, Spot seems to want to read Chinese, or perhaps Hebrew; which is to say, upside down and backwards. This versatility will be quickly eliminated; what really counts is that he's figured out how to turn pages, and the mastery of this simple technology is really the key to the universe. He's soaking things up like a sponge, and although none of his frothy diphthongs or happy glottal clicks will find a place in modern English, the link between page, sign, sound (or mysteriously funny joke) is clearly there for him.

It's astounding to watch this act of coordination, and I try to focus on his progress in compensation for my own sense of steadily diminishing IQ, and the nagging sense that everything in my brain has been steam-pressed in the industrial diaper laundromat of fatherhood. Perhaps that accounts for the recent surge in tomes: if it can't be held in my brain, then maybe I can trap it in a book, and hold it down for a while. Until I can get it back.

On bad days all this business with words can seem like a purely Darwinian transfer of resources, from my brain to his: "Son, here is my vocabulary. Enjoy it. I won't be needing it anymore."

On good days, when we achieve something like family bliss, Spot sits in one place on the rug and quietly flips back and forth through all 700 pages of The Search for Modern China. The dog slumbers in a sunbeam, and I sit back in the armchair, feel my years, and reread the five pages I read the day before and have since forgotten.


Backpacking Dad said...

I feel your...what's the word? Oh. Pain. My 11 month old daughter can sit quietly and flip the pages of her many books back and forth over and over and over again, and I've had almost zero success getting through a book I have to review for a panel this weekend. I can't even take the time to read my trashy for-pleasure sci-fi books anymore.

But I've balanced out this brain-drain with Signing. I'm trying to teach her how to sign ASL.

I don't know ASL.

So I am constantly forcing myself to learn new signs just so that I can teach her what they are.

As I was reading your post I was in the middle of learning the signs for "caterpillar" and "baseball bat" from a Signing Time broadcast I had recorded earlier.

And this is the trick my own teachers have known forever and that I am just figuring out. To be a good teacher doesn't mean knowing all the answers already; it means being even more eager to learn the answers than your students, because you have to do the legwork first.

chicago pop said...

Hey backpacking dad, I just happened to discover your blog the other day, and here you are! All those pictures of Menlo Park and elsewhere make me jealous of California sunshine, but backpacks do have their advantages here in the snow belt, for example when the snow is more than 6 inches deep and you really can't depend on anything with wheels.

Anyway, good luck with ASL. We're inventing our own sign language, and it seems to involve Spot's left nostril and a lot of banging. Cheerios seem to be a required prop. What did Wittgenstein say about private languages?

Anyway, keep on packing. And good luck with the book. I paint a gloomy picture here, but in fact I've managed to read more than some "working" dads I know (and so does Jeremy, I'm convinced).

Unknown said...

I've enjoyed watching the growth of my son's desire to look at books all on his own, not just to have me read them to him hundreds of times. I still enjoy reading them to him, but to watch him flip through and see him point out the associations he's made/making is really cool. Of course, I have to force myself not to correct him whenever he seems to want to do things "the wrong way." That goes for reading, coloring, painting, whatever.