The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia
by Laura Miller
Review Part I (Part II to follow this week)
I did not want this book to end. As soon as I finished it, I went back to the beginning again. I had intended only to reread the sections I’d highlighted (about half of the book, if truth be told), but I am enthralled by Miller’s prose and am in the middle of reading the entire thing again. She fell in and out of love with C. S. Lewis’s books over the years, and this is a rich chronicle of her impassioned relationship.
There is much to admire about this book, but one of the things I love most is Miller’s description of her first introduction to Lewis’s books. Miller tells a wonderful tale of her Grade 2 teacher, Wilanne Belden, who lent her a copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Miller remembers even the physical properties of the book in detail: “a slim hardcover bound in grey fabric with the image of a little stag stamped on the front” (22). Miller dedicates The Magician’s Notebook to Ms. Belden, and credits the gift with turning her into a reader. The book “really did make a new person out of me” (4)
Most of us persuaded our parents to buy us boxed sets of all seven Chronicles, but I also saved up my allowance and occasional small cash gifts from relatives to buy a hardcover copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, one of the few times in my life I’ve ever succumbed to the collector’s impulse. … This was not about obtaining a possession, but about securing a portal. I was not yet capable of thinking about it in this way, but I’d been enthralled by the most elementary of readerly metaphors: a little girl opens the hinged door of some commonplace piece of household furniture and steps through it into another world. I opened the hinged cover of a book and did the same. (23-24)
Aaaaah. The collector’s impulse.
Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris is my first and most important book about books, and I rejoiced in the collector’s thrill last week when I found a pristine hardback edition.
Alas, I do not have access to enough memories from childhood, let alone memories of childhood reading, to reach the narrative about the book that turned me into a reader. I would love a narrative about the gift of THE book that would change my life forever.
I do, however, have a primal scene of reading, or, rather, of being read to. Like the Freudian primal scene, I did not know its significance at the time, I only knew desire that overcame antipathy, and some of its significance is still lost on me. But for whatever reason, and beyond reason and the frailties of the least reliable of memories, I can remember a particular poem from when I was nine.
It was read to me by a substitute teacher in Grade 5 at Dhahran Academy, in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia. I was a lost child at the time. Saudi Arabia was one move too many for me (I had lived in five countries and had been to five different schools already, and this last one was more change than I could manage). My accent changed with every new school so that I could blend in better. North American English at the international American schools and English English in England and at home, with my English mother who insisted that her children not utter hard Rs.
The teacher (I do not remember her name) was unwelcome to me for several reasons. She was yet another change. My regular teacher (whose name I have also forgotten) was a kind soul who knew that I was having difficulty adjusting and gave me a lot of space. The substitute, who was there for several weeks, had an English accent, which represented a threatening blurring of boundaries. I spoke American English at this school, and switched to an English accent when I went home, and she was doing my head in.
The worst thing of all, though, was that she made us sit on the carpet at the end of the day and listen to poetry. We went kicking and screaming at first. In this, at least, I felt an allegiance with my schoolmates. The thing she read to us, day after day, was “The Highwayman.” Imagine a woman in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert choosing that to read!
She knew what she was doing. She lulled us in to willing submission. Again and again she read the poem, and with each hearing, we grew more and more still. With each telling, we became more and more interested, until finally, we could not wait for the rocking rhythm of the verse that ended our day. I have an absolutely piss poor memory, but I can hear the lines of that poem, feel its rhythm far below layers of conscious thought. “The road was a ribbon of moonlight.”
It is her reading to us, and the puzzling choice of that of all things for my brain to remember, that has convinced me of the wonderful power and joy of reading aloud to children. Why does this poem, of all the millions of words I’ve read and heard, stick so firmly in my head? I don’t read poetry often now, and when I do it’s contemporary. I’d give my eye teeth to be able to remember other things. What was it that made my memory so uncharacteristically receptive to just that poem?
Is it the text or the teacher who makes the difference? Or an alchemical mix of text and person?
I don’t think that there is an answer to which book will strike a chord with a child or when. That means that frequent and loving exposure to all kinds of literature is essential. It could be anything.
I am, right now, reading Zorgamazoo to Griffin (8) and Rowan (4). It’s a novel-length book told entirely in the rhythm and rhyme scheme of Dr. Seuss. Will that be the book that the boys hear me reading decades hence? Heaven help them.