Monday, June 15, 2009

Summer Reading: Kon Tiki

My first memory of reading out of pure obligation and not deriving any form of pleasure from it is linked to the start of middle school. I was in California, where it's typical for middle school to consist of seventh and eighth grades only. I'd graduated from my public elementary school and had gained admittance to a private prep school. Heading into the summer before that seventh-grade year, incoming students were given a reading list. Apparently all the books were mandatory. I only remember a single one—though probably there were books on that list that formed a much more lasting impression, I just don't associate their titles with the marching orders I received in the summer of 1981. Until this time, I read voraciously, and I read everything I wanted (including Judy Blume books banned by my elementary school teacher) and nothing I didn't want. I mean, yes, certainly there were other school assignments, probably other summer reading lists, but if any of them were less than exciting, they didn't raise a complaint that I can recall. This was different. I don't remember ever being so certain that I would dislike a book, nor so accurate in such a prediction. The book was Kon-Tiki, a nonfiction account of a high-seas adventure, written by the Norwegian explorer, Thor Heyerdahl. For those of you who don't know, Heyerdahl led an expedition of six men (including himself) to sail across the Pacific Ocean from South America to Polynesia, in 1947. This was no ordinary sailing, however; the men made the journey aboard a balsa-wood raft, which was constructed using primitive techniques indigenous to Peru—the idea being to prove Heyerdahl's theory that it was possible for South Americans to have settled the islands of Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. What ensued was a perilous journey lasting more than a hundred days and spanning thousands of miles of open water. The book was published three years later and was an undisputed success, spawning additional works in film and television. Almost thirty years later, it's impossible for me to remember much about the book, or why specifically I disliked it so much. Maybe if I reread it, I'd even like it now—who knows? I do know that at the time, the book went down like a horse pill swallowed dry, which is to say not well. I kept setting it aside, arguing with my parents about the necessity of reading it all the way through. I was sick of salt water, cloth sails, sharks . . . whatever various dangers threatened these men who, I thought, were fools to float themselves out there to begin with. I suspect that the book was on the list specifically to appeal to boys, and maybe it was successful in that regard. Not that the girls would dislike it automatically because of their gender—that would be a gross stereotype and I'm sure (I hope!) inaccurate—but it was just not my thing at all. Suddenly, reading was the worst kind of chore. And it would often be so in the years that followed. I'm glad that, eventually, I attained the discipline to read all assigned texts with as much careful attention as I gave the books I loved. But I have to say that it was a bit of a shock to the system to have my favorite pastime—reading—suddenly crammed down my throat. It was a sea change (pardon the pun), and a signal that I'd moved into serious academic territory. Now, it's summer again. This time, it's my son who has the printed reading list, issued from the Junior School librarian. At his age, the list is optional; it's a list of suggested books that parents might encourage their kids to read, according to their own tastes. The list is long, with a diverse collection of titles. Certainly my son and I will work through quite a lot of these, and I will be glad for his sake that, this year at least, the activity will remain one of pure pleasure.

Note: If you want to keep track of what my son and I are reading together this summer, please visit my page on GoodReads: and look for the "mother-son book review" shelf.

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