Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Reading (With Children)

by Tanya Egan Gibson

It's hard for me to believe that until five years ago, I could just skim The San Francisco Chronicle's weekly guide to literary events, read about which authors were doing events at Book Passage, my local independent book store, and blithely decide to go hear them speak. I'd go because I love books. I'd go because I love being read to. I'd go because I idolize writers the way some people idolize movie stars. I'd go -- I admit -- because I liked to dream about one day standing up there myself, reading from my work.

I loved being among people who loved words, people who were willing to finish dinner early (or start it late) in order to sit in orderly rows at 7 pm with books in their laps waiting to be signed. It was a social experience that didn't require being social. I could be among people, yet still be lost in my head (my preferred locale), seeing characters in my mind as their creators read them aloud.

And then, I had children. Understand, my children are the most wonderful things to have ever happened to me. Understand, I love them more than life. But here's the thing about kids: they take you out of your head. They transport you to places that are about the physical, the real. Mommyland.

Mommyland, at least at the beginning, was diapers and unattractive nursing blouses that kept falling open, and tiny baby socks that were adorable until they slipped under the rubber gasket that's supposed to protect the drainage holes in the washing machine and, undiscovered, spawned colonies of mildew. Bookland -- which suddenly seemed a continent away -- had been sitting next to civilized strangers, and nodding in unison with them at an author's profundities, and cradling a hardback in my arms. I missed Bookland. And I couldn't imagine the two places coming together any more than I could imagine the continents reforming into Pangea.

When my daughter, Dylan, was three months old, Michael Cunningham came to Book Passage to read from Specimen Days, a triptych of stories set in New York City--the first during the Industrial Revolution, the second right after 9/11, and the last one 150 years hence--and that share at their heart the poetry of Walt Whitman. Did people bring babies to readings, I wondered, trying to remember if I'd ever seen a child at a reading. No, they did not. But could someone bring a baby to reading? If, say, someone sat in the back and was prepared to leave at the first sign of fussiness?

Though Dylan was asleep when we arrived, by the time Cunningham read from a post-apocalyptic journey scene in the third part of the book, "Like Beauty," she was awake, hungry, and...slurping. My bundle of joy was suddenly incapable of nursing quietly. She smacked her baby lips and made cooing noises of relish. She pushed away the blanket I'd put over my shoulder out of modesty and exposed my left breast.

"Sorry I brought a, um, baby," I said, as I handed Specimen Days to its author to sign afterward. She cooed. He smiled. "It's her first reading," I added, and then, "Could you sign it to her?

"To Dylan of the 22nd Century," wrote Cunningham, who was gracious and kind about the whole thing, "Peace."

Since then, Dylan has amassed a small collection of books that I "borrow" but which, because I have them signed to her, I still think of as hers. Though I'm fortunate to have family in the area who can sometimes watch her and her younger brother, I still, from time to time, end up sitting in the back with children, having flashbacks of Michael Chabon's event for The Yiddish Policeman's Union when Dylan, then age two, was so excited by the "J" page of the alphabet book I bought to divert her that she yelled out "Jelly Beans, Mama! JELLY BEANS!" two minutes into Chabon's reading.

This Thursday, May 14th, I'll be reading at Book Passage on the release date of my debut novel, How To Buy a Love of Reading. It will also be a benefit for Mama Hope, an amazing organization founded by Nyla Rodgers in memory of her mother, my writing teacher and friend, Stephanie Moore. (See my previous blog entry for more on Mama Hope.)

To have an event at Book Passage is truly a dream come true. If you happen to be there at 7 pm while I'm reading and hear a baby gurgling or a preschooler giggling -- those are my kids. The book is dedicated to them, after all (and to my patient, wonderful husband, who will be child-wrangling). Mommyland meets Bookland. I couldn't imagine my first reading without them.

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