My earliest memories include visions of my mother reading to me as I sat on her lap. Once I would memorize a story, she’d tease me as moms often do with their repetition-loving youngsters. She’d change one word and wait for me to object.
When I grew a little bigger, Mom read to my little sister and me nightly from her chair next to our bunk beds. One of the books she read was Winnie-the-Pooh. I still have my original copy of A.A. Milne’s masterpiece. It’s in a state of disrepair, but I prefer it that way. Like the velveteen rabbit whose realness increased as his “skin” grew threadbare, the my Pooh book also grew more real with wear. And upon reaching adulthood, I smiled when I re-read the story, as I caught entirely new layers of meaning. White had written a book for children, but he tucked inside some rewards for the bigger readers too.
My father also contributed to our love for reading—I would often see him with his nose stuck in a National Geographic or American Heritage magazine. In fact, his literacy extended further than I realized, as I would find out later. Much later.
Whenever Dad faced the occasional toilet overflow, he would grab the plumber’s helper and dash into the bathroom calling out, “Double, double toilet trouble! Come a-runnin’ on the double!” I found his trochaic tetrameter clever, and I was also glad that the same man who tossed a wrench when the car gave him fits could so good-naturedly face what I considered a far less agreeable task. I had no clue that he was quoting—or rather, misquoting—anything.
Nearly four decades later, however, when doing my Ph.D. work, I took a course in Shakespeare tragedies. One evening as I was reading along in MacBeth, I came upon something in Act IV, Scene I that shocked me. The witches bending over their brew were chanting, “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble.”
I burst out laughing.
For years, decades even, I had quoted my dad’s rhyme without realizing he had based it on some of the best-known literature in the English language. I had lacked the background to appreciate it. Yet that deficiency hadn’t kept me from enjoying it at an elementary level. Still, further knowledge added—greatly added—to my appreciation.
Lifelong Journey of Literacy
The road to literacy is paved with many such layers.
I had a similar experience with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. When I checked it out from the school library in the sixth grade, I knew little of the Bible. So when I read in L’Engle’s pages the concept that “perfect love casts out fear,” I thought she had coined a beautiful saying. Only when I read the same phrase in the New Testament several years later did it dawn on me that L’Engle had borrowed her profound concept straight from the elder John himself. Both revelations—the initial discovery of the idea and the later realization of its literary source—delighted me.
And the revelations keep happening.
In the early 1990s, one of my creative-writing professors assigned his graduate students to read Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Then we had us write something that mimicked her style. And, frankly, at the time I could hardly stand the book. I wanted Ms. Dillard to get on with something, anything, other than what I considered endless ramblings about nature. Still, the class’s results proved interesting, even if for some (myself included) Dillard’s work provided nothing more than an opportunity for parody.
Fast forward a few decades, and I’m a writing professor teaching the same class in the same institution. So, a few years back, I gave my students the same assignment. And I re-read Dillard to refresh my memory. I wanted to be able to catch my students’ allusions, sorting through what they borrowed and what they created.
And to my utter surprise, I loved the book.
Whereas in the past I had read too little of Shakespeare, Thoreau, and Pliny to appreciate Dillard’s references to them, now I understood. And whereas in the past I had read too little history even to know what “anchoresses” were, this time when I found them in Dillard’s similes, I caught her meaning. I found myself glad to have yielded my youth to years of learning.
Whatever level of literary understanding we might have achieved, we are always becoming better readers. It’s a lifelong journey. We start out on the dirt path of plain understanding—“my father made up an amusing rhyme”; “L’Engle has a wonderful idea”; “Dillard writes only of nature.” Yet as we reread texts, we find that children are not the only ones who grow in literacy.
And those of us who make our living using the word to communicate the Word—we of all people can and should aid our readers in their multi-layered literary journeys by ensuring that whatever we offer them is legible, readable, and accessible on many levels.
The Greatest Book Ever Written
It is also why we must read and reread the Bible. We benefit from the way different truths touch us at different times, depending on what God is emphasizing in our lives in the moment. And we equip ourselves to notice when authors are borrowing from its pages.
Consider what John Steinbeck did with Cain and Abel’s story retold as East of Eden. Or what Melville did with Moby-Dick and Jonah. One does not have to know the underlying story to appreciate the conflict between brothers or the joy of triumphing over a whale. But a thoroughgoing understanding of the Genesis story or of Jonah’s voyage adds to the reader’s appreciation of the author’s genius. Think, too, of how Dickens used the idea of substitutionary sacrifice in The Tale of Two Cities. Or how Lewis’s Narnia adventures retell the greatest story ever told.
The Bible itself is our example here, as it speaks to multiple audiences.
Consider that “in the beginning” we have a beautiful garden, but the man and woman choose to sin in a little matter about a tree. In the Gospels we find an innocent man hanging from a tree. And in Revelation we find humanity restored in the garden and invited to eat—you guessed it—from a tree. We can appreciate the wonderful ending in John’s apocalypse without knowing about the first two trees. Yet how much more meaningful the story is to the reader who has journeyed all the way from Eden to paradise restored.
We can read the book of Hebrews and catch the idea that Christ is supreme without knowing the story of Israel carrying around a tabernacle in the wilderness and what all the accessories symbolized. Yet Hebrews makes more sense, holds more meaning, as we grow and find layer upon layer of literary allusion.
Think of Jesus on the cross crying, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” The words and the angst behind them are clear enough. Yet consider the even more powerful punch they pack when the reader knows the Son of David is quoting his ancestor King David right out of his Hebrew Bible.
As people of the word—and as publishers, writers, and sellers of books—we depend on the communication of words for life, both temporal and eternal. And the path to aural and written literacy is a lifelong road with many layers from the dirt path to the highway.
The best works, the books destined to be classics, the books our readers deserve, get better and better as we grow.