As the mother reads, so reads the son book lovers both

June 21, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

I first met Matthew when he was 3. He was the firstborn of my husband's oldest friend, his college roommate. It was Christmas and we gave Matt a red wagon. Looking back, a library card would have made more sense.

Matt is a reader. He's what they mean when they talk about a "voracious reader." He brings the same kind of appetite to books that he used to bring to the kitchen table after school, where he would slurp down huge cans of shiny peaches.

His mother, my friend, makes weekly pilgrimages to the library to bring Matt armfuls of books -- everything she can find by the author that is his latest fascination. He disappears into his cave of a bedroom and emerges in an astonishingly short time with the books ready for her to return. Looking back, we should have given the wagon to Diana.

Matt graduated from high school this month, and he goes to Duke University in the fall. (Presumably, he will find the library himself.) Matt leaves behind a mythical reputation as a reader.

"You know Matt?" a young girl asked me once, and her voice betrayed her admiration. "Do you know he is the only kid in the history of the school to have done all the reading for AP U.S. History?"

After reading Robert Heinlein's science fiction book "Job," Matt asked his mother for the family Bible so he could read the original story of Job. With his graduation money, he bought "The Brain: The Last Frontier," and "The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds and the Laws of Physics."

I am not making this up. Matt is the envy of every mother who has watched her son flip through comic books while the junior novelizations gathered dust.

How did Matt get to be such a reader? His father, who made his mark in college in professional football, claims not to know how to use a card catalog. And maybe that's true. But the quiet, almost grim, diligence that made Matt's dad a success in sports and business shows up in Matt as clearly as those bridge-pier legs and those powerful hands.

This is no pasty-faced bookworm -- sports found Matt. No high school coach would let that body go to waste, and he wrestled and co-captained his football team. But his mind is elsewhere. I think it belongs to his mom.

During the long days of her husband's early work life, it was just Diana and Matt. And she read to him endlessly. His first favorite book was "Sleeping Beauty," and he took it with him everywhere, "reading" it even before he could read.

Soon enough, Diana was fetching for Matt all the books by C. S. Lewis, the series that begins with "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

In fourth grade, Matt made a detour into comic books. Every Friday, he would take the bus and his allowance downtown to buy the latest super-hero comics. During that phase, Matt could tell you the special powers of every character -- whether you wanted to hear them again or not.

By junior high, Matt was reading every letter produced by Sue Grafton, the alphabet mystery writer. By high school, it was James Gleick's "Chaos," and "A Brief History of Time." He said the "Brothers Karamazov" changed his life, giving him new reverence for it, and he sent his mother to the library for everything written by Dostoevski.

Meanwhile, the woman who used to make notes in the margins as she read Dostoevski is reduced by the multiple demands of motherhood to stolen moments with her books. The woman who has more books on the shelves in her powder room than I have in my entire house too often drifts off to sleep with one of those books in her lap.

"Sometimes I am very envious of him," she said to me once.

If you see Diana cruising the streets, ferrying this child to a rehearsal, that child to a soccer game, you might beep and wave, but she will not hear you, lost as she is in the books-on-tape that are her compromise. Her tape deck has as many miles on it as her van has.

Not long ago, Matt challenged his mother to read more than the popular fiction that is delivered on cassette tape, to join him in the world of Russian literature or Eco's massive "Foucault's Pendulum."

"You could read these books, Mom," he said with earnestness and encouragement. "I know you could."

Oh, Matt. Don't you know that you read all those books because your mother did?

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