We know why it’s important to read early and often.The neurological reasons, the psychological ones, the skill-sets we gain, and so on. But what about the long-term effects, so exquisitely subtle when they act upon a malleable mind? Some adults react to this with a shudder, leaping to the task of scouring through their children’s shelves and making sure they’re only getting wholesome fare.
But what if you read a book as a child, read and reread it, were fascinated by it, and then left it behind in the careless manner of children? What if you forgot all about it. What if years later you reread the book, and it was horrific? Written in a dark era by a polished, cruel mind? Its full impact hit your grownup self upon that second reading.
I’ve long been a fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I find her fiction rich and rewarding. I recommend her TED talk on the dangers of a single story to everyone, and now the talk and related book, We Should All Be Feminists.
This article by her in the New Yorker has once again given me, the ex-child reader, plenty to think about.
To return to the books of my childhood is to yield to the strain of nostalgia that is curious about the self I once was. What could I, at the age of ten, have found so engaging in the memoir of a Nazi, Adolf Hitler’s de-facto No. 2 man?
Today, there are plenty of books for young readers about the horrors of the Third Reich. But Adichie is talking about a primary text, a work of both memoir and propaganda: Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer. She reflects on that long-ago reading in incomplete snatches of memory combined with nothing more than speculation, surely, because what can you really remember of something like the effect of a book upon your own mind. Layer memory with interpretation and you have so many layers of subjectivity that you can’t draw logical conclusions. But you can remember the visceral effect of a book, the sensory memories of the time and place you read it. And you can absorb its subtext without knowing what it is you are really taking in.
I suppose it can poison you. But it can also be a kind of inoculation, taking effect long after that first reading, tempered by the life experience of the reader.
Speer demonstrates a slick honesty whose goal is to disarm. If it disarmed me as a child, it repels me as an adult.
Children are often drawn to the frail dividing line between truth and lies. They can often sense the contradictions simmering beneath the words, even if they can’t name them. The astute child reader can store away the impact of a book, only to make meaning of it years down the road.
Did I sense the insecurity that pervades this memoir, and, by extension, the Third Reich itself? A collection of men-children with infantile fantasies.
The writer looks for lessons in a text that may well have shaped her in a curious way. And she makes the point that the books we read in childhood, incidental as they seem to us at the time and beyond, are capable of being interpreted and reinterpreted for years to come. She suggests that history too comes around in circles. With populism on the rise, we would be wise to look for the past’s reflections in the mirrors of our own time.