I wasn’t surprised when my 14-year-old began borrowing my books; if anything, I’d expected her to start doing so earlier, but then I suppose she has a lot of books of her own. It’s still a bit funny to watch her peruse my shelves, skimming jacket copy with an expression of intense focus, as if she’s trying to choose a book to bring home from the library. “Can I read this?” she’ll ask, holding up Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic or Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad or Tommy Orange’s There There—all books on her high school’s recommended-reading list. We talk about what she reads, and I’m always interested to note how her taste aligns with mine, or doesn’t: She loved Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, Charlotte Higgins’s Greek Myths: A New Retelling, and Emily St. John Mandel’s latest, Sea of Tranquility, but she wasn’t as wild about Pride and Prejudice on her first read—did I build it up too much? Seem a little too keen to introduce her to it?—though she thoroughly enjoyed watching the 1995 BBC miniseries with me.
When I was growing up, my family didn’t have much money, and my parents were anti-cable TV and video games and unlikely to pay for them even if they’d had more to spare. But there were always books in our house: a permanent collection—childhood classics and Christian texts, some poetry and some Shakespeare, the high fantasy and thrillers and Westerns my dad loved, my mom’s Jane Austen box set and her favorite English murder mysteries—as well as the rotating stacks of titles we’d checked out from the library or traded for at the used-paperback shop. My bedroom boasted a half wall of plywood shelves my grandfather had rigged up after my personal library outgrew several smaller bookcases, stuffed with everything from Nancy Drew to Edith Hamilton, The Baby-Sitters Club to The Lord of the Rings. I borrowed from my parents’ collection, too, without asking and without comment—nothing was off-limits. They never objected to any book I brought home from school or from the library. Sometimes I would bristle when an adult, usually one who didn’t know me well, commented on the size or scope of the books I toted around—Is that yours? Do you even understand it? Do your parents know you’re reading it?—as if I were the first kid in the world to pick up The Odyssey or The Joy Luck Club or The Screwtape Letters; as if my family should have known better than to let me read books not explicitly written for my age group. As if I had to understand every word and idea, the way a grown-up might, in order to get swept up in a story.