Reasons to Read The Berenstain Bears
Patrick Clement James
A recent Internet meme has Facebook users posting a list of books that they find personally influential.
Here's my list:
1. The Berenstain Bears
2. Little Women
3. Leaves of Grass
4. What the Living Do
5. Brideshead Revisited
6. The Color Purple
7. Thomas Hardy: The Complete Poems
8. A Home at the End of the World
9. Slouching Towards Bethlehem
10. The Wild Iris
My mom read to us every night. She opened the book while we snuggled next to her, and I could hear her pulse. I could watch the rise and fall of her breath as she read. She always bent back the dog-eared page, reminding us where we were. And when she started, her voice rose just a bit, if only to announce the beginning of something special.
I think that somewhere along the line most of us get the impression that there are books we're supposed to worship and books we're supposed to scorn. I guess that's how one develops taste. But how much of our taste in literature is wrapped up in unworkable ideas of right and wrong? I can't tell you how many times I've picked up a book and thought: "This is going to be good for me." And while I usually get through whatever book that is, its utility is generally confined to the classroom.
But I carry the books I love with me constantly. I use passages and lines, repeating them over for friends, writing them down in journals, turning them over in my head. I fall hard for those books, and I don't question whether they're good or bad for me. I simply let them do their magic, whether they've earned that authority or not. It just happens, almost beyond my control.
I think love does that. Love is not always good for us. It's often not what we ought to feel. I think of the cliché of the bad boy, the dangerous hoodlum on a motorcycle that nice people are instructed to avoid. Everyone says he'll corrupt us, change us, and turn us into the kind of person we're not allowed to be.
When it comes to books, which one is your bad boy? Is it Nancy Drew? Stephen King? Fifty Shades of Grey
? What is the book you're not supposed to love, but do anyway?
The Berenstain Bears live in a tree at the end of a dirt road, deep in the heart of Bear Country. There is Mama and Papa, and they have two cubs named Brother and Sister. Someday soon, they'll have another cub named Honey. But for now, the Berenstain bears learn lots of things--like how to improve manners, handle a bully--how to not be afraid of the dark.
It was something of a ritual. Back then I couldn't follow the story. I wasn't old enough to read; and so I'd let myself look over at my mom, her eyes on the page. I'd listen to the sound of her voice. Or I'd look at my brother. He was old enough to follow along. I remember his face--he must have been about five.
Yes, this is how I fell in love with reading, next to my mother and my brother. Night after night, the repetition and ritual comforted me. It helped me fall into the rhythm of my life. It's something I still do: each night, before I go to bed, I try to read a little from a book.
This past Christmas I sat with my parents in an old Lutheran church, and the pastor read aloud the Christmas story. An angel came to Mary and told her that she was with child. Mary gave birth, and she placed the baby in the manger, and three wise men followed a star. As I listened to the narrative, I thought about how stories often structure our lives, how we use stories to mark time. We create rituals, holidays, and systems of belief.
Joan Didion once wrote: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live."
And maybe that accounts for the nightly ritual, the need to tell the gospel out loud in a church. I'm not sure how many people actually believe the Christmas story anymore, but something in me wanted to hear it--needed to hear it--on Christmas Eve. I needed to know that in seasons of darkness there can be light, if only for the ritual, the repetition, the long, aching expectation finally fulfilled.
The trouble that Sister and Brother get into always works out somehow. Initially, Papa will offer bad advice that only makes things worse. Brother and Sister will have to struggle a little while, and then Mama comes along and fixes everything. That's when we can say the story is really over. At the end, everybody learns a lesson. Every tear is dried; every question is answered.
The other books came eventually. I remember reading A Home at the End of the World
in college. And The Wild Iris
fell into my hands in the back of a Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side. I read the entire book while leaning against a bookshelf, my messenger bag cutting the circulation off in my shoulder.
And the same is true for Brideshead Revisisted
--a bench in Central Park, alone one June. I had recently met a man from England, and after a bizarre weekend he got on a plane at JFK and went home. I was alone, reading about Oxford, getting my feelings mixed up in the novel, confusing Sebastian for myself. Brideshead Revisited
is a good book, well written and legitimately admirable. But, I'm not sure if I would have loved the book if I had not loved the man.
There is a significant difference between love and admiration. To love something feels automatic, non-negotiable. To admire something--well sometimes you have to look a little further into what's there. You have to find concrete reasons to admire it. But love is different; it's irrational. Sometimes it's left unexplained and indefensible. And yet we go on loving, without guarantees or reason.
I think love is at the heart of language. St. Paul says: "If I speak with the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging symbol." Love factors into what we choose to read and what we choose to understand. And I think we often forget about love. We forget about the crazy variables beyond the text, the little lovely details swirling around the stories we invite into our lives. We forget about who sits next to us in the bed while we read, what that person means to us, and how it changes everything.
I love the Berenstain Bears because they remind me of my mom and brother. They remind me of being too young, the tidal rhythms of plot, falling asleep in the middle of the story. I love the Berenstain Bears for these reasons--and if I'm being honest, these reason alone. I don't' need to defend this; those books serve a very unique and personal purpose. And this is why I read the Berenstain Bears every so often--yes, I confess, I still read the Berenstain Bears.
I think they're beautiful. I love them.