As with all children, Daughter Number Four has a bedtime procedure. PJs, teeth, the usual stalling – I’m thirsty, I’m hungry, I want to go to the toilet, I need to say goodnight to the dog, I have to tell you something urgent – and then stories. Stories, or Lovely Stories as we’ve marketed them, consist of a bit of a chat with a Gruffalo glove puppet and one book.
The choice of book depends on her mood. It can be something advanced, with more words and fewer pictures, or, if she’s feeling babyish, a Peppa Pig lift-the-flap book where she has to “guess” the best friends of various Peppa characters.
Over time, the convention has developed where I have to pretend not to know the answers and am required to cycle through lists of names. Sometimes it's actors, or family members or political leaders. I've used the name so much, she's banned me from suggesting Mary Lou McDonald: even though she's the spit of Suzy Sheep.
It will be many years before Daughter Number Four is able to read stories by herself, yet when that happens something profound will take place. The voice of the narrator will change from mine to one she has to make up herself. In the way that all stories are interactive, she will become part-author of everything she reads, and in time, the author of the stories she tells herself; the story of her life.
Generally speaking, children enjoy being read to, so it’s odd, perhaps even a little sad that as adults, we tend not to do it. In the Hollywood version, reading to another grown up only happens when somebody is gravely ill in hospital: a reversion to child-like comfort and security. Outside of that, it seems infantilising or a little pretentious. I can’t remember when, or if ever, I’ve read to another adult. Or if it’s ever been done for me. When I was a child, we didn’t get books at bedtime. We got prayers.
Adults do read to other adults, but the situation has to be formalised
Yet by not doing it, we're losing the benefit of that additional voice. Miss Haversham or Holden Caulfield will always be slightly different characters when their words are coming out of a different mouth; out of a different mind.
Yes, what I’m saying is not strictly true. Adults do read to other adults, but the situation has to be formalised. I’ve done a few book readings and I’ve attended others. And back in the days when I might have to drive somewhere, I’d listen to the New Yorker fiction podcasts, where a writer will read a short story previously published in the magazine, and then have a pointy-headed exposition of what it all meant.
Book readings and podcasts can be hugely enjoyable, yet they are performative and a little ritualised. They lack the intimacy of someone you know reading to you: because in that very act, there’s also a little love.
A phrase I hear a lot in my house is: you should write a column about that. Herself used it while puzzling aloud about adults not reading to each other when Daughter Number Two revealed that she does just that. It has become a lockdown habit for her and Daughter Number Three to cuddle up together in bed and take turns as narrator or listener. They’ve just finished Lolita: which, for two feminist teenagers, was a bit of a weird choice. (Their response: shut up Dad.)
Yet I was delighted and surprisingly moved to hear that they do this. The image of sisters, my daughters, reading to each other is also intensely intimate: almost uncomfortably so for a middle-aged Irish man who got prayers at bedtime. We’re never entirely free of our pasts.
Still: there will be many more years of reading to Daughter Number Four before she’s able to do it herself. And even then, I might nip in the odd night and say: hey, let me read to you tonight.