Lying Awake; The Child That Books Built; Tepper Isn't Going Out; and Eragon

Tiny Tikes Tome Talk

Now, you and I know that Jimmy, the twelve-year-old kid from down the street, doesn’t really exist. Even so, one doesn’t want him to feel bad about it, so if he asks a favor, it doesn’t hurt anyone to lend a hand, right?

That would sound a lot more supportive if I could remember what the tyke’s name is.

"Basically," he tells me after inviting me to join his friends' book group, "the mall cops always run us off when we don’t have adult supervision."

"So you picked me," I say. "That’s --"

"Actually," he says, "We --"

"So what book are we doing?" I ask. I'm just floored that today's generation is doing anything with such an old media. They should be playing Sega or IMing or something.

"This meeting we're all bringing a book to discuss. Since it's short notice, you don't have to --" But he was too late; I quickly leap up the steps to get a book. I find the one I want and we drive off to the mall.

We are the last to arrive. There is amazingly little small-talk, perhaps because they've been text messaging each other all day already. Jimmy introduces me as their token adult and takes charge of the meeting. He asks Jessica to begin. Jessica sits straighter and folds her hands on the table before her.

"The book I have chosen to bring this time is called Lying Awake, and it's by Mark Salzman --"

"Oh, I know that book!" the girl across from Jessica cries. Jessica's eyes narrow and the seashells attached to the ends of her hair click menacingly. "What's amazing to me is that the book is written by a man."

All of the eyes at the table flick to me and then away. Jimmy smoothly turns attention back to Jessica.

"Jessica, what's the book about?" he asks.

"Well," she continues, "it's the story of a nun who has been having intense spiritual communion with God, or at least she believes that she has been, and then discovers that she has epilepsy. The book is built around this crisis and her need to make a decision: should she have surgery to correct the epilepsy, even though the epilepsy might be responsible for her visions? And if the epilepsy is causing the visions, what does that say about her faith? It's an excellent book. Clarissa is right, in a way. The author is a man, but his use of the female point of view is definitely well-done."

"Why can't a man--" I start to ask, but Jimmy quickly turns the table's attention to the lad sitting to Jessica's left.

"Prasad, what book did you wish to discuss?"

"I have to start by saying that I'm well aware of the prevailing sentiment in this group for fiction over non-fiction. However, I have been reading the essays in Francis Spufford's The Child That Books Built. Although this book is not fiction, he does speak directly to my fiction-loving heart with his survey of a life of reading. I must say that at moments during my consumption of this book I was transported back to my earlier days when novels truly offered some wonder…"

"Earlier days?" I interrupt. "How --"

"Mr. Blake," Jimmy interrupts me in turn. "Please let Prasad continue."

"But, I mean," I turn back to Prasad. He nervously adjusts his tie. "Dude, you can't be more than eight, right?"

"Eight and a half."

"Exactly!" I say. "How can you look back on your earlier days? Do you mean those wonderful halcyon days when all you had to read was the label on your diaper?"

Of course Prasad's bottom lip starts to tremble and the other kids all frown. Clarissa reaches out a hand and pats Prasad's shoulder with the tips of her fingers. The other little boy in the group picks up his Elmo backpack and starts to struggle into it.

Sizing up the situation, Jimmy says to the group, "Does everyone remember Tepper?" The kids stop their little vibrations and start to meld together again. That Jimmy is a wonder. Of course, I don't have any idea what the heck he's talking about, so Jimmy explains to me that Tepper was a character in Calvin Trillin's Tepper Isn't Going Out. Tepper was on a quixotic quest for a parking spot in New York City. It helped them understand, he tells me, what it must be like to reach a certain age and find yourself useless and outmoded.

Tiffany reaches out to pat my shoulder.

"What book did you bring, anyway?" Prasad asks. As I was absorbing the Tepper story, I decided to sit on the book I had brought. So I only shrug, but the kid with the Elmo bag has been crawling around the table legs picking up Legos. He reads the spine of my book clearly enough for all to hear: Eragon. This is greeted by rolling eyes and hoots of derision. The word "condescending" is passed about.

"What?" I ask. "Don't you like this book? Because --"

"Because it was written by a kid," they all interrupt.

"Sir," Prasad speaks up. "None of us believes that Eragon would have been published had it been written by an adult. In fact, if it had been written by a young person who didn't have connected parents, the book would have remained in the obscurity it really deserves."

"It was a little formulaic," I admit. Snorts all around. Jimmy notes that we're out of time.

"Where do we meet next time," Tiffany asks. Once again, everyone quickly looks at me and then away.

"Don't worry," Jimmy says. "I'll AIM everybody."

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