A little over a year ago, when I was still just secretly pregnant, I wrote my credo statement for church, inspired by the New York Times article about a father and daughter who read together for over 3,000 nights in a row. I must admit that part of what inspired me about the story was the idea of all the reading I hoped I could one day do with the tiny life just begun inside of me. When I saw that the daughter had written a book about that experience, I could not have been more excited to read it. I marched to Barnes and Noble and paid full price for the hardcover. Using gift cards. But still. No one could have been more excited to read that book than me.
But . . . you knew there was a but coming, right? The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma fell short for me in several ways. From the beginning, she explains that she and her father can’t agree on how their Reading Streak began. Which makes perfect sense. They weren’t trying to make history, so they didn’t note what happened. But she also mentioned early in the book that she has made her father promise not to read it in all its mushy loving glory. And that set off a few alarms in my head. The other witness to this tale was surely consulted, but if he didn’t weigh in on the final product, I must admit that it makes me a bit skeptical. It’s so easy for childhood memories to turn into the neatly-wrapped tales we wish they had been rather than the stories they actually were, and I felt while reading it that more than a few edges were smoothed in submission of the overall goal of this story.
You may be saying: of course! A narrative must be crafted for a memoir to be successful. And I absolutely agree. I am comfortable with facts giving way to truth, because there is more to the story of our lives than just the facts. For me, though, something about the story seemed a little too convenient. I can’t put my finger on it, but I was not as engaged in The Reading Promise as I had hoped. I think, perhaps, there was not enough reflection in the story. The books that were read did, from time to time, tie in with the narrative (sometimes very tangentially), but I would have preferred more about the books as well as more reflection on the actions of our two main characters. I wanted a cohesive story, but it ended up being more like snapshots of her childhood with books thrown in here and there. I also hesitate to admit this, but I didn’t think her dad seemed like a stellar guy, despite her obvious adoration of him. And don’t get me started on my concerns about the way that he, a school librarian, refused at his job to integrate any technology into his lessons, and insisted on only reading stories. I love reading stories to the kids, but the job of school librarian has evolved past only doing that, and his unwillingness to change is bad PR for us all. Especially in these days of slashing budgets.
I am apparently at odds with Booklist and Library Journal, which both gave The Reading Promise a starred review. I think it does convey the power of reading, but overall, I would not recommend it.
While we were at the beach, I read three different memoirs. I love reading people’s stories because one of my core beliefs is that everybody has one, and that they are better when they are shared. As a new parent, I have thought a lot about what it means to be present for Atticus’s story without trying to tell it myself, and what kind of story I choose to tell with my parenting. If I learned anything from The Reading Promise, it’s that taking time to reflect on what happened is part of what it means to tell a good story.
(Obligatory baby picture.)