One of my pleasurable memories of childhood was of my mother waking me up very late one night. She had just returned from a business trip and she had bought me a book. I can no longer remember what that book was. Throughout childhood I remember receiving Shel Silverstein and the Narnia chronicles in a box set and The Sword in the Stone—I puzzled over the pronunciation of “sword” for months. We were quite poor, and books were a great treasure to me. In particular I loved my mother’s university textbook, an anthology of children’s literature. It was a weighty book, its double-columned pages pressing down the blankets at the foot of my bed as I read it with chin in hands far past bedtime. Between a worn out library card and my own little collection of well-loved books I filled my childhood with stories.
Among the tragedies of a home lost to fire was the loss of books. I still have Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, water-damaged and moldy with my mother’s handwriting inside. I found the same Narnia collection at a goodwill store—for nostalgic reasons—and cannot remember which The Sword in the Stone version puzzled me so, though I still struggle with the silent “w.” And I finally found that old children’s lit anthology on Amazon’s marketplace, after all these years out of print.
When I say we grew up poor, I mean hand-me-down rubber boots caked in soil that would never turn a profit. So new books were at most an occasional treat. But growing up with the richness of imaginative literature, I never looked at first world poverty the same way again. While some struggle from a genuine lack of nutrition—about a billion people at last count—in my context so many more suffer from a poverty of literature. In my world, many suffer from narrative malnourishment, with distended imaginations unable to process the softcover meals that occasionally come their way.
I don’t know how widespread this famine really is. C.S. Lewis noticed it once when hosting a family in the mid-1930s. He had the tendency to feel a little resentment toward house guests that never left, so we should take his assessment of the family with a grain of salt. Still, he made the comment to his best friend, Arthur Greeves, that, “The only member of the visiting family whose society we like is the boy, Michael, about 5.” He jokes that while he pretends to love children, he doesn’t understand them, while his brother, who claims to detest children, endears himself to them easily. Despite his apparent disconnect, Lewis did come to have some concern for Michael. So his family—his brother, his “mother” Minto, and he—created an evening ritual for Michael:
“Minto reads him the Peter Rabbit books every evening, and it is a lovely sight. She reads very slowly and he gazes up into her eyes which look enormous through her spectacles–what a pity she has no grandchildren. Would you believe it, that child had never been read to nor told a story by his mother in his life? Not that he is neglected. He has a whole time Nurse (an insufferable semi-lady scientific woman with a diploma from some Tom-fool nursing college), a hundred patent foods, is spoiled, and far too expensively dressed: but his poor imagination has been left without any natural food at all. I often wonder what the present generation of children will grow up like (how many middle aged men in all generations have said this). They have been treated with so much indulgence yet so little affection, with so much science and so little mother-wit. Not a fairy tale nor a nursery rhyme” (Letter to Arthur Greeves, December 7, 1935).
Lewis recognizes that he is starting to sound like an old man, and takes a poke at himself for it. But if you strip away his unflattering portrait of the nanny, the image is striking. Michael, age 5, is given the richest and most nutritious foods available to make his body strong, “but his poor imagination has been left without any natural food at all.” What is a childhood, after all, without lap reading?
I missed a lot growing up with old shoes and a drafty house. In the end it was poverty that took my home and half my family within it. But I grew up a prince in a palace of imagination, and now I face an uncertain world with the confidence of one who has faced many foes and slayed many dragons, as G.K. Chesterton would say. There’s no substitute for that kind of enrichment.
See Walter Hooper, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume II, p. 171.