There have been many articles written lately about literature’s power to improve empathy, to lead us to happiness, and there have even been essays that suggest that reading can make us better people. What if we could use literature to transform ourselves like a Mendel plant-splicing experiment, or like a Frankenstein monster? It’s an oversimplification, I know, but it’s a nice thought.
The thing is that I have a son. I want to be better for him. I want to show him how to be the person he wants to be. Figuring out how to raise him is the focus of my life right now. There’s so much that I want to teach him. There’s so much that I do teach him. For example, just today I taught him that peas are for eating, mud is not for eating, sand shouldn’t be thrown straight up. But I learn so much more from him. He’s shown me, among many, many other things, that closeness is important, affection should expressed, feelings should be experienced, the world is full of things that can be touched and smelled and babbled to, and mashing pasta between your fingers feels great. He “shakes hands” with trees, and blows kisses to the smiling old ladies who wait to see him every morning, and he’s delighted by everything. What do I have to tell him about how to live a life? Except that the adult world gets so muddied so quickly.
I’m worried about this because all the stupid parenting websites say that you should write a will right away. I’m in the process of doing this. It’s been depressing in all the ways that you’d think it’d be depressing. I do want to leave him something, though, something more than things. I’ve heard people talk about ethical wills, but that’s depressing too because I keep thinking about how often I fall short. So I’m writing him a literary will instead. I’m telling him about my favourite books. Maybe that can show him what I wanted to teach him, or the world that I’d wanted to make for him, or at least the person I’d wanted to be, for him and for myself.
I’ve been thinking about which books I want to include, and it’s a work in progress of course, but here’s what I have so far:
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery for its whole heart. I’ve read this book so many times. I go back to it every few years. I always cry at the same part, but different things have made me smile over the years, so this book has become a kind of bookmark for me. I can remember the earlier versions of myself as I’m reading.
Variations on the Word Sleep by Margaret Atwood for its love.
A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews for making me want to find gratitude.
Contact by Carl Sagan for making me look up.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson for its beautiful sentences. (This sounds silly, writing it down, but it’s meant a lot to me.)
The Leaf Storm by Gabriel Garcia Marquez for its expansive imagination.
There are so many others: In The Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje; Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shell Silverstein; The Cinnamon Garden and Swimming in a Monsoon Sea by Shyam Selvadurai; The Root Cellar and Shadow at Hawthorn Bay by Janet Lunn; Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones; Ces Enfants de Ma Vie by Gabrielle Roy; The Bedtime Book by Sandra Boynton; The Way Back Home, and Lost and Found, and How to Catch a Star by Oliver Jeffers; The Hug by Lesley Simpson; St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russel. Really, everything by those and all my other favourite writers (*). I’m still working on it too. It’s going to be a long list, but for some reason, I want to have this written down.
To my little boy, and to the world, and to whoever might be reading this: I do believe that we can change ourselves through reading, however small the steps, however tiny the increments. I’ve tried. I’m not always successful. These are some of the books that I’ve tried to steer myself by.
(*) Some of the writers are Jacob MacArthur Mooney, Andrea von Konigslow, Linda Spalding, Thomas King, Roald Dahl, Amina Farah, Mia Grace Kim, Dave Cameron, Judith Thompson, Dr. Seuss, Mathew Henderson, Rebecca Rosenblum, Dennis Lee, Dionne Brand, Mark Sampson, Carolyn Smart, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, Catherine Bush, Margaret Atwood, Jeff Latosik, David James Brock, Jamie Forsythe, Paul Murray, Colum McCann, Julius Marx, Moez Surani, Emily Schultz, Alison Pick, Joseph Boyden, Andre Alexis, Alice Munro, Paul Strathern, Julian Barnes, Elyse Friedman, Hillary Rexe, Nila Gupta, Ben Lerner, Sandy Pool, Marjane Satrapi, Meaghan Strimas, Kerry Clare, Daniel McIver, Amber McMillan, Ali Smith, Kate Atkinson, Gordon Kormon, Jael Richardson, Max Barry, Nathanial G. Moore, Eufemia Fantetti, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alistair MacLeod, Zachariah Wells, Jane Austen, David Mitchell, Elizabeth de Mariaffi, Alison Bechdel, George Murray, Madeleine Thien, Marianne Apostolides, Stevie Howell, Rachel Lebowitz, Leigh Nash, Ayelet Tsabari, Sachiko Murakami, Andrew Faulkner, Stephen King, Teddy Jam, Jim Johnstone, Carry Toane, Susan Isaacs, Mark Di Saverio, Michael Chabon, Christine McNair, Rob McLelland, Zoe Whittall Carolyn Black, Robert B. Parker, Joan Lowery Nixon, Kiran Desai, Mary-Louise Gay, George Elliot, Susan Juby, Linda Besner, Ruth Ohi, Debbi Ohi, Vladyana Krykorka, David Seymour, Lydia Davis, Margaret Buffie, Ann Patchett, Aminatta Forna, Dani Couture, Camilla Gibb, Paul Vermeersch, Bharati Mukherjee, Chekhov, Zola, Proust, Saint-Exupery, Dumas, Dickens, Whidden, Devereux, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bronte, Nabokov. There are so many more, but I won’t include them all here (and in fact, I’m probably leaving out more than I’m putting in). I was going to write the complete list – I will for my kid – for him, I’ll annotate – but this is taking forever.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Alexis von Konigslow has degrees in mathematics from Queen's and creative writing from Guelph. Her debut novel, The Capacity for Infinite Happiness, was recently called Arcadia for the connected age. She lives in Toronto.
You can contact Alexis throughout the month of September at firstname.lastname@example.org