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CHRIS ERSKINE / The Guy Chronicles

Book Habit Puts Dad, Son on the Same Page

April 22, 1998|CHRIS ERSKINE

The boy reads the paragraph, then stops. He likes this paragraph. To him, it is rich with truth, almost profound. He reads it again.

People have been trying to understand dogs ever since the beginning of time. One never knows what they'll do. You can read every day where a dog saved the life of a drowning child, or lay down his life for his master. Some people call this loyalty. I don't. I may be wrong, but I call it love--the deepest kind of love.

"That's true, isn't it, Dad?" the boy says after reading it the second time. "This stuff about dogs."

I nod, and we read aloud some more, first him, then me, sharing this book page by page, chapter by chapter, front to back.

"You really like books, don't you Dad?" he asks as we pause between chapters.

"They're all right," I say.

Truth is, I like books the way I like cold, foamy drinks in the summer and baseball in the fall. Basically, I live for them.

And now the boy is discovering books too. Almost by accident, the 12-year-old is finding enjoyment in the simple act of reading, a kind of intimacy there is no real expression for.

"Know what 'camaraderie' is?" I ask him at one point.

"Like being friends?" he says.

"Like being pals," I say. "You've become pals with your books."

"Sorry, Dad. I don't get you."

"That's all right," I say. "Just keep reading."

Six months ago, he was indifferent to books. He read only when he had to. And even then, not always.

Six months ago, if someone had offered a magic potion to make him love to read, I would've paid a fortune for it. Even though I don't have a fortune, I would've paid one, borrowing the fortune at 15% interest and paying it back in huge installments over 60 years.

Back then, he thought books were for dorks, prematurely mature boys who couldn't hit a fastball or snag a line drive. Books were for indoor people, people who shunned sunlight and all the other good things in life.

Then, one day, the boy flopped down on the couch and didn't flop back up again.

"Mono?" I asked the doctor.

"Mono," the doctor said.

It was just the bad break he needed. Mono. And for two weeks, he became what he'd always despised--an indoor person.

The mono made him so sleepy, he couldn't watch TV. It left him so weak, he couldn't lift a book.

So I began to read to him. Like when he was 4, I would read to him, hamming it up and trying to bring the words to life.

As he got stronger, we would alternate reading pages aloud, first him, then me. Then, with time, we would alternate chapters. And when he finally recovered, we still alternated chapters.

Now every night before bed, he grabs some book and calls to me. And together we read, elbow to elbow, page by page.

"Dad, you listening?" he'll say.

"Huh?"

"Your turn to read."

"OK," I say, shaking myself awake. And we read some more.

He likes adventure stories mostly. "Old Yeller." "Where the Red Fern Grows." "Hatchet." Stories about boys lost in the woods with only their dogs and their hunting rifles. Stories he gobbles up like movie-house popcorn.

And now this love for reading has gotten so out of hand, he'll even read a daily newspaper, starting with the sports section and working his way forward, the way his dad does.

He reads the sports section the way people read the wills of rich relatives, scouring the fine print, then rereading the parts he doesn't fully understand.

Mostly, he likes the obscure facts, the stuff he thinks only he will discover.

"Mondesi is only hitting .194," the boy says in disbelief. ".194!"

Each morning, he leans down close to the page, getting his elbows in the newsprint, crinkling the page as he shoves closer to the breakfast table.

The smaller the print, the closer he gets. The smaller the print, the more he cherishes the information.

"Catfish Hunter threw five no-hitters in high school," he says, reading some factoid deep inside sports. "Five no-hitters!"

He stores up these facts for later use, balling them up in his brain like pieces of string, ready to call on them at just the right time, during playground discussions or dugout debates.

"The All-Star game is July 7," he says, pointing to a piece of type no thicker than an eyelash. "July 7 at Coors Field."

There's a pause as he hunts for more factoids, more of the trivia that makes a boy a boy, or a man a man. Or, maybe best of all, a little of both.

"Dad, you listening?" he finally says, both our noses buried in the morning paper.

"Huh?"

"You listening, Dad?"

"Always," I say.

* Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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