Portable and Infinitely Useful

Now that he has passed his first birthday, my son Miles has begun to handle books differently. Instead of gnawing on them, he stacks them purposefully on each other, pulls them off the shelves and ...

Now that he has passed his first birthday, my son Miles has begun to handle books differently. Instead of gnawing on them, he stacks them purposefully on each other, pulls them off the shelves and flings them into piles, or moves them from room to room, chatting to them all the while in not-quite-English syllables.

He has started bringing books to me and putting them in my lap, though it’s not clear what he wants me to do with them. He may simply be sharing them with me, engaging in the age-appropriate game of handing objects back and forth. If I open one of these books and start reading aloud, I can usually get through a few pages of rhymes about animals or colors or food before he wanders off. Sometimes he flips pages back and forth on his own and enthusiastically tears open pop-up flaps. He shows interest in particular pictures and seems to recognize the cadence of familiar passages from The Owl and the Pussycat and Dear Zoo when we read to him before bed, but, for now, he gets more pleasure from closing books than from opening them.

Because I am someone whose life revolves around books, I cannot help wondering what, if anything, they mean to 14-month-old Miles. Is he beginning to recognize them as something other than tactile and colorful objects, interchangeable with blocks or trucks or stuffed animals? Like all 21st-century parents, my partner and I have been bombarded with exhortations to read to our baby early and often. Pregnant women are encouraged to read to their unborn offspring. Parents of children who cannot yet hold up their heads are similarly encouraged to institute regular story-time rituals, starting with books that feature stark black-and-white pictures whose contrast appeals to developing eyesight. Your child should see you reading; your house should have books in it. The breathless, even anxious language of these appeals suggests that reading and books—the act and the objects—are the key to children’s future success.

Reading to children from infancy is framed as a public-health issue; in 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement advising pediatricians to inform families of the benefits that reading can bring, including significantly improved language and literacy skills over time and closer bonding between parent and child. The lead author of the study, Dr. Pamela High, noted in an interview with PBS NewsHour that books could be used as “a vehicle for assessing how well [a] child is doing developmentally.” Such studies have an interesting relationship to the book as object, seeming to suggest that the physical book itself matters as much as the words it contains. A popular recent parenting book, Reading with Babies, Toddlers, and Twos: A Guide to Laughing, Learning, and Growing Together through Books, offers a top-ten list enumerating the rewards of reading “to your baby or toddler”:


  1. It’s fun.
  2. Reading builds vocabulary.
  3. Books stimulate the imagination.
  4. Reading increases the chance of later academic success.
  5. Books and their characters teach empathy and understanding.
  6. Reading entertains, it stimulates, and it lights up the senses.
  7. Books are portable and infinitely useful.
  8. Reading is an introduction to our culture and our world.
  9. It’s an inexpensive, richly rewarding way to spend time together.
  10. It’s fun.

One of these in particular stood out to me: number 7, that  “Books are portable and infinitely useful.” All my life, I have identified with this statement to an unhealthy degree, although I’m not sure how to translate that urgency to someone under two. For me, books have been props, signifiers, dinner companions, fetishes, and shields, among many other things, but I didn’t expect the breezily practical-sounding authors of Reading with Babies, Toddlers, and Twos to have shared these experiences with me.

Being a first-time parent involves embracing so many unknowns that we may have overreacted to the introduction of a single familiar element. Books! We know what to do with those. But books for a baby cannot be all the things they are to us. In my field, Victorian studies, scholars like Lyn Pykett and Leah Price have made a convincing case for books as an aspect of material culture; for a long time, we have done lots of things with books besides read them.They are talismans and tokens suggesting social aspiration, wealth or the wish for it, and membership in the desirable ranks of the community of readers. Books signify meanings as objects and commodities, beyond the words they contain. In How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain, Price notes that books can be said to “function both as trophies and as tools,” even when they remain unread. Think of your own bookshelves. How many of the volumes on them are texts you haven’t read but mean to read someday, or want people to think you have read, or both? How many of them have you carried with you through more than one move without opening? How many covers evoke a particular time and place with a sharpness that borders on pain, even though you don’t quite remember how they end? “Portable and infinitely useful,” indeed.

As people who read, write, and teach for a living, my partner and I didn’t need to be told that reading to Miles matters. His relationship to literature was always going to be closely watched, infused with our memories of the identities we found in books. It is absurd, of course, to imagine that a toddler should have anything like the same attitude to books and reading as his narrative-obsessed humanities-professor parents. And yet his room has begun to look like the children’s section of a well-stocked library. Can this proliferation of books for a barely verbal child be anything other than the reflection of his parents’ palpable, anxious desire for him to be a reader? I fear that we have become a terrible parody of ourselves, stocking his shelves not just with sturdy board books but with books we loved as children, books that even the most precocious infant reader won’t embrace for years: the D’Aulaires’ illustrated compendiums of Greek and Norse myths; C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books; The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; James Herriot’s All Things Bright and Beautiful.

Miles’s current speed is more Is Your Mama a Llama? When I read that book to him, he doesn’t notice or care that the rhyme and meter don’t scan. The happy anarchy of Sandra Boynton’s Hippos Go Berserk! seems to appeal to him, as do Margaret Wise Brown’s gentle modernist lines in Goodnight Moon about moons, balloons, mittens, and kittens. The board book format—in which words and pictures are printed on thick cardboard pages to prevent the depredations of the small—represents most of his experience with books thus far; as rookie parents, we have learned that small children and dust jackets don’t mix.

For me, one of the great pitfalls of board books is the possibility of unacknowledged abridgement. The authors of Reading with Babies, Toddlers, and Twos matter-of-factly point out that many board book versions of classic children’s books have been awkwardly truncated to greater and lesser degrees, presumably for cost reasons. Because we only have the board-book version, Miles has never heard Ludwig Bemelmans’s Madeline in its entirety. He doesn’t know that the board-book edition of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault, in which the lower-case letters of the alphabet climb up a coconut tree and then fall out of it, is missing a whole second section about their capital-letter friends and relations.

I have a horror of abridgements dating back to a disappointing library copy of Ivanhoe “for young readers,” but Miles doesn’t recognize anything lacking. The books are heavy in his hands. They are satisfying to stack and to throw. When I open them and read aloud to him, the same sounds accompany the same books, over and over again. I think he likes it, except when he clearly doesn’t. icon

Featured image: Vintage children's books. Photograph courtesy of Vintagecat / Flickr