My son and I exchanged books on Christmas. Uncle Gerry had given me a copy of Norwegian Folktales, and him a copy of John Muir’s short works. They were thoughtful gifts—he knows I love folktales, and my son had talked with him at length about John Muir on several occasions.
But he underestimated the size of my library, and overestimated my son’s interest in reading nonfiction.
To be fair, I wouldn’t ask anyone to buy me a book of fairy tales unless I gave them an ISBN. That is one genre very well represented on my shelves. I teach folklore (because I love it), and that has given me an excuse to buy widely. Also my daughter and I make an annual pilgrimage to Solvang, where there is a Hans Christian Andersen museum and a well-stocked bookstore we visit dutifully.
All right; I’ll just say it. He bought a classic collection, and I already have three different translations of it. So I traded with my son for John Muir.
My daughter also received a book of environmental nonfiction: Terry Tempest Williams’s The Hour of Land. She gave it to me for “safe keeping.” By my count, she should be ready for it about twenty, maybe twenty-five years from now. This is speculation, of course, but informed speculation.
My daughter reads fantasy. My son does too. When they’re reading for pleasure, which is pretty frequently for American teenagers, they read fiction and some poetry. I remember this. I once told my mom (a biography nut) that there was no point in reading about real people; real people are boring. And I told my dad at the wise old age of 16 that nonfiction was useless. The real world was taking place all around us. If I was going to read, there should be dragons.
So I’ve seen this sort of thing before. But my kids are doing it a little differently. My son is reading that new folklore book with the intent of plundering it for content for his Dungeons and Dragons adventures. My daughter does this too. She likes novels with well-developed worlds and accompanying maps, in part because she draws her own maps for her D & D campaigns.
Where my experience and my kids’ overlap is in territory they’re not paying attention to yet, but I recognize it. While they read about all these magical places, they’re putting them to immediate use. But what they don’t see happening is the building of their own internal landscapes. They are stocking their brains with fantastic settings and spectacular characters whom they speak of as friends. These images and scenes are building up their framework for understanding the world—their frame of reference from this time forth. That is huge, and fantasy will do the job.
There must be families somewhere who like nonfiction as kids, but where we live, reality can wait. We have lots of years of Narnia and Hogwarts and Wonderland and Discworld before they can be tempted away by the majesty of the real world.
In other news, I have arrived at the age of loving nonfiction. And it is breathtaking.