My 9-year-old son has "screen-itis" - he is magnetically drawn to anything with a screen, be it the TV, movie theaters, a computer, or his all-important Game Boy. I do my best to moderate and modulate these attractions, and with some success. The trick has been to give nongraphic activities - particularly books - equal time.
In this light, a while back I began collecting volumes of Illustrated Classic Editions - palm-sized, 1970s and '80s-vintage, pulp condensations of great literature aimed at children. I find them for pennies in used book stores, at yard sales, and in thrift shops. There are, I believe, 24 volumes in the set, of which I have collected 12. They have been a bonanza for my son and me, and have drawn him to our nightly reading with great anticipation.
However, the reading itself didn't quite turn his head. In a flash of inspiration, I proffered a plum: at the end of each book we would watch a film that it had spawned. To seed the effort, I wanted to make sure that the first story we read was a doozy. As I reached for the books on a high shelf, one volume suggested itself by falling on my head: "Moby Dick."
This volunteer was a charm. Anton and I sat on the couch by the crackling warmth of the wood stove. As soon as I began to read - and Anton had heard the words "whaling," "harpoon," and "Queequeg" - he was hooked.
The strategy of these highly distilled books is to eliminate any byways or complicated character developments that do not occupy the straight and narrow of the story line. In the case of "Moby Dick," the rewriter did away with Melville's chapters-long preamble about the history of whaling in New England. He puts Ishmael immediately into that Nantucket inn with the enigmatic Pacific Islander Queequeg, and a-whaling they go.
All along the way, Anton asked questions about the narrative. Why was Ahab so angry? What kind of whales did they hunt? Where is Nantucket? As we read, he snuggled closer to me, his big brown eyes blazing with interest.
When, at last, the story ended with Ishmael afloat on the sea, clinging to Queequeg's coffin, Anton released a sigh, as if he had been holding his breath for the entire length of the book.
And then, for the pièce de résistance, we saw "Moby Dick," starring Gregory Peck and Richard Basehart. We plopped in front of the video with our bowl of popcorn and having already been oriented to the characters and the story through our reading, Anton began to tell me about the progression of the plot, identifying situations and cueing me in on what would happen next. When the film finally came to an end, it was as if we had completed a mission.
"Ready for the next book?" I asked him. He nodded with alacrity. "Then you choose."
Anton went to the bookshelf and, after a few moments' consideration, returned with "The Man in the Iron Mask" by Alexander Dumas. "Oh, this is a good one," I said. "It's about the Three Musketeers."
"Who are they?" my son asked.
" 'One for all and all for one!' " I quoted. "Just remember that." Then I cracked open the volume, and we began to read. Once again, the book went down like honey, and when we finally slipped a video starring Leonardo DiCaprio into the VCR, Anton's first words were, "When will we see D'Artagnon?"
This reading-movie two-step has established a tradition between my son and me that has persisted for several months now. In the interim, we have tackled "Captains Courageous," "Oliver Twist," "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," and "Tom Sawyer."
It has been a singular pleasure to be in on a child's first exposure to timeless literature. But beyond this, our enterprise has given me an opportunity to resurrect books that were old friends, books that I might never have reapproached if not for Anton's interest in making this journey together.
The weather report says that tonight will be cold, with high winds and a roving cloud cover. It's also my turn to choose our next reading. Among our dozen neatly shelved Illustrated Classic Editions, only one will fit the predicted atmospheric mood: "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." I hope there will be thunder and lightning. Failing that, we always have the movie to look forward to. The old black-and-white one, starring Fredric March.
I can hardly wait.