THE VOICE I assume for children's bad behavior is like a winter coat, dark and heavy. I put it on the other night when my eldest child appeared in the kitchen doorway, an hour after he had gone to bed.
"What are you doing down here?" I began to say, when he interrupted, "I finished it!"
The dominatrix tone went out the window and we settled down for an old-fashioned dish about the fine points of "The Phantom Tollbooth." It is the wonderful tale of a bored and discontented boy named Milo and the journey he makes one day in his toy car with the Humbug and the Spelling Bee and a slew of other fantastical characters who change his life.
I read it first when I was 10. I still have the book report I wrote, which began "This is the best book ever." That was long before I read "The Sound and the Fury" or "Little Dorrit," the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries or Elmore Leonard. I was still pretty close to the mark.
All of us have similar hopes for our children: good health, &L happiness, interesting and fulfilling work, financial stability. But like a model home that's different depending on who picks out the cabinets and the shutters, the fine points often vary.
Some people go nuts when their children learn to walk, to throw a baseball, to pick out the "Moonlight" Sonata on the piano. The day I realized my eldest child could read was one of the happiest days of my life.
"One loses the capacity to grieve as a child grieves, or to rage as a child rages: hotly, despairingly, with tears of passion," the English novelist Anita Brookner writes in "Brief Lives," her newest book.
"One grows up, one becomes civilized, one learns one's manners, and consequently can no longer manage these two functions -- sorrow and anger -- adequately. Attempts to recapture that primal spontaneity are doomed, for the original reactions have been overlaid, forgotten."
And yet we constantly reclaim some part of that primal spontaneity through the youngest among us, not only through their sorrow and anger but simply through everyday discoveries, life unwrapped.
To see a child touch the piano keys for the first time, to watch a small body slice through the surface of the water in a clean dive, is to experience the shock, not of the new, but of the familiar revisited as though it were strange and wonderful.
Reading has always been life unwrapped to me, a way of understanding the world and understanding myself through both the unknown and the everyday. If being a parent consists often of passing along chunks of ourselves to unwitting -- often unwilling -- recipients, then books are, for me, one of the simplest and most sure-fire ways of doing that.
I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves. That would give them an infinite number of worlds in which to wander, and an entry to the real world, too; in the same way two strangers can settle down for a companionable gab over baseball seasons past and present, so it is often possible to connect with someone over a passion for books.
(Or the opposite, of course: I once met a man who said he thought "War and Peace" was a big boring book, when the truth was that it was only he who was big and boring.)
I remember making summer reading lists for my sister, of her coming home one day from work with my limp and yellowed paperback copy of "Pride and Prejudice" in her bag and saying irritably, "Look, tell me if she marries Mr. Darcy, because if she doesn't I'm not going to finish the book."
And the feeling of giddiness I felt as I piously said that I would never reveal an ending, while somewhere inside I was shouting, yes, yes, she will marry Mr. Darcy, over and over again, as often as you'd like.
You had only to see this boy's face when he said "I finished it!" to know that something had made an indelible mark upon him. I walked him back upstairs with a fresh book, my copy of "A Wrinkle in Time," Madeleine L'Engle's unforgettable story of children who travel through time and space to save their father from the forces of evil.
Now when I leave the room, he is reading by the pinpoint of his little reading light, the ship of his mind moving through high seas with the help of my compass. Just before I close the door, I catch a glimpse of the making of my self and the making of his, sharing some of the same timber. And I am a happy woman.