I have a confession to make. I just finished reading The Golden Compass to my 5th and 7th grade sons. They had seen the movie trailer and wistfully hoped to be allowed to read the book, knowing that would be my prerequisite to seeing the movie. I had heard the brouhaha over the atheist author with an agenda and had three choices: 1) ban the book based on third party recommendations (something I avoid); 2) read the book myself before approving it for the boys (unrealistic, given the thirty plus volumes already on my nightstand); or 3) read it out loud together, discuss it as we go, and see if their classical education would bear fruit.
It turns out that I now owe a great debt to Philip Pullman. Compass is a clever children’s adventure story with a few instances of oddly amoral violence, a tacked on diatribe about the concept of sin, and a bit of disturbingly violent sexual attraction in the final chapter. Our reading triggered some amazingly deep conversations. The boys readily spotted misquotes from the Bible. The physical manifestation of the characters’ souls as animal “daemons” led to a discussion about the impact of the theory of evolution on people who see themselves as highly evolved animals rather than specially created in the image of God.
But none of these things, as great as they were, indebted me to Pullman.
I owe The Golden Compass because we, my preteen boys and I, discovered that we like reading together. This may seem an obvious, anti-climatic conclusion to some, but here’s confession number two: it was news to us.
It’s not the first time we had read out loud as a family together. We dutifully read through the entire Chronicles of Narnia when the boys were much younger. Since then, we had dabbled in other works by Lewis and a Sherlock Holmes story or two, but the habit hadn’t stuck. In fact it was one in the long list of parental “shoulds”—like family devotions, family dinners, eating fruits and vegetables—that we sporadically attempted but unsuccessfully incorporated into our routine. Reading together had turned into a chore.
So what was different this time? Quite simply, we were all new to the book. I was no more aware of what twists and turns lay ahead than the boys, so we were companions, fellow explorers.
By mutual decision, we passed on the other books in Pullman’s series and declined The Golden Compass movie. Instead, we’ve moved on to an equally unclassical and even more exciting adventure series, Artemis Fowl. We never watched much TV, but we now watch almost none. Not because of any big family resolution, but because we just can’t wait to find out what will happen next to our favorite child genius/master thief. In fact, the only family rule that has emerged is that no one is allowed to read ahead of the group.
Confession number three: I’ve already broken the rule.