Edward Rothstein,
A weeklong electronic journal.
March 5 1998 12:30 AM

Edward Rothstein,


       For a period of time in childhood, one of my secret terrors was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen." A nearly invisible fragment of a goblinesque mirror becomes lodged in a child's eye and changes his sight. All that is ugly and evil looms large; all that is refined and good is made small. Gradually, the boy's heart, also penetrated by one of these glass slivers, turns to ice.
       I have just started reading the story to my 4-year-old daughter, Anna, and if anything, it seems more potent now than it once did, not less. Anna just knows that those splinters have somehow transformed the loving, kind boy into a coldhearted wretch--the kind of change in temper and perspective she is beginning to wrestle with in herself sometimes. But she is too young yet to feel the full terror of those fragments, which may be washed away by tears but leave behind scars that alter perception. And she hasn't yet seen hearts turn to ice after such wounds.
       The terrors of childhood loom large, but I am finding that in reading aloud to children, they loom even larger for adults. I felt a chill from reading Great Expectations tonight that my 10-year-old could not have imagined. Miss Havisham, wearing her yellowing wedding dress, draws her aged arm around Pip's neck, pulls him down close, and tells him to love the beautiful Estella. "Love her, love her, love her!" Miss Havisham fiercely cries. "If she favors you, love her. If she wounds you, love her. If she tears your heart to pieces--and as it gets older and stronger it will tear deeper--love her, love her, love her!" For Aaron, that vehemence is part of a slowly unfolding adventure story; for me, that heart-tearing is creepy, frightening, and plausible.
       It's weird, these varied perspectives. Some years ago, when reading aloud a children's biography of Helen Keller to Dena, I came upon a paragraph describing the death of Anne Sullivan, Helen's teacher and devoted friend. I couldn't bear to read further. Tears formed; my throat tightened. Dena, not understanding the sudden faltering silence, urged me to continue; she pulled at my arm, using such vehemence that I began to laugh at my paralysis, passing the book to my wife, Marilyn, to pick up where I had left off. But upon reaching the tragic paragraph, she too could not continue reading. We both ended up laughing through tears, while Dena grew ever more impatient with the callousness of her guardians.
       The intense experience of reading aloud--the way it brings back the immediacy of childhood and breaks through the passive reading habits of adulthood--has also helped me justify reading literature in silence, in defiance of all deadlines and all impracticalities. I have started to carry around great novels, to be read at the oddest times. I dipped into Victor Hugo's Les Misérables for an essay for the Times recently about Ragtime, Les Miz, and revolutionary Broadway musicals, but now I am reading the epic novel more carefully--on the subway, at the kitchen table, or staining the book with sweat as I exercise. Here, in all its lyrical effusiveness, is what I read today, which someday I may read aloud to an aging descendent:

Algebra applies to the clouds; the radiance of the star benefits the rose; no thinker would dare to say that the perfume of the hawthorn is useless to the constellations. Who could ever calculate the path of a molecule? How do we know that the creations of worlds are not determined by falling grains of sand? Who can understand the reciprocal ebb and flow of the infinitely great and the infinitely small, the echoing of causes in the abyss of being and the avalanches of creation?

       "A bit of mold is a pleiad of flowers," Hugo writes, "a nebula is an anthill of stars."

Edward Rothstein is cultural critic at large for the New York Times and writes the paper's "Connections" column on technology (archived here). He is the author of Emblems of Mind: The Inner Life of Music and Mathematics.

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