A Journey of Three Million Words


Photo courtesy of Mary Clare Bailey, 2014. All rights reserved.

My son Patrick just turned 10. I am reading The Fellowship of the Ring to him. Every night we snuggle in his bed together, after saying prayers, and I read about four or five pages before lights out. This has been our routine since he began sleeping in his own bed, which was likely soon before his sister Catherine was born, almost eight years ago.

By the time he was about five, we left behind reading children’s books in favor of full-fledged adventures. I decided to take a stab at calculating just how much reading that has amounted to over five years. Even if my assumptions are off, the results are still startling. In any event, the assumptions I used were 4.5 pages per night, for 12 minutes, at 350 words per page, 350 nights per year.

The results? 350 hours of reading, 7,875 pages, 2,756,250 words.

What is even more remarkable to me is we’ve only read about seven or eight books a year. Here’s as many of them as I can remember:

  • The Chronicles of Narnia – all volumes
  • Little House – all volumes
  • Charlotte’s Web
  • Tom Sawyer
  • Huckleberry Finn
  • Beowulf
  • King Arthur
  • Treasure Island
  • Kidnapp’d
  • Robinson Crusoe
  • Johnny Tremain
  • Black Beauty
  • David Copperfield
  • Little Women
  • Mutiny on the Bounty
  • The Last of the Mohicans
  • Call of the Wild
  • The Yearling
  • Caddie Woodlawn
  • Pollyanna
  • Heidi
  • The Secret Garden
  • The World Wars (Usborne)
  • The Tempest
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Othello
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Julius Caesar
  • Macbeth
  • Hamlet
  • King Lear
  • The Hobbit
  • The Fellowship of the Ring

Patrick, unsurprisingly, is a voracious reader in his own right. He is great pals with the wonderful librarians at our local library. He can easily plow through Johnny Tremain or Treasure Island or The Hobbit on his own. His favorites are The Hardy Boys, Hank the Cowdog, Redwall and the Fr. Brown Reader for Children.

Still, at the end of each day, without exception, no matter what time it is, where we are or what has occurred that day, his one question to me, without fail, is: “You’re going to read to me, right?”

It helps that he is auditory. The sound of my voice reading brings a stillness and attentiveness to him that nothing else does. I’m not sure Beowulf would be a suitable choice for most children. For Patrick it was a revelation. The foreignness of the language, the mystery of it, was itself almost narcotic in its effect. I can sense, as I read, that he has drifted off into his own world, completely immersed in the story, his entire being quiet in the act of listening.

And often, when I close the book for the night, he asks, “Can you read a little more, please?” So Patrick is probably more responsible for this achievement, if you can call it that, than I am.

To read a few pages at a time, every single night, year in and year out, is the only way to get through three million words. But I have found, quite unexpectedly, a gift that this kind of reading offers. To read – aloud – great literature, a few pages at a time, every night for many weeks (I think it took six months to read David Copperfield), even to the point of co-opting the appropriate dialect, is to enter in a more complete way the universe created by the author. When, for example, your mind’s eye has grown so thoroughly accustomed to what it imagines is the universe of David Copperfield, by the middle of the book, about three months in, it is as if you have become completely fluent, as fluent as a native speaker, in a new language. So fluent, in fact, that a native speaker could not distinguish you from himself.

The only way I can explain the net result of so thoroughly immersing oneself in the universe of one wonderful work of literature after another, day in and day out, for years on end, is to develop so strongly an unspoken, non-verbal language, yet a language nonetheless, not of the mind but of the heart.

How much more might the impact be on a young boy, discovering this world, this language, by listening to his father? I may be privileged to observe some of the external effects of this on Patrick, as he gets older (sob!) and eventually becomes an adult, but it is a certainty that I will never truly understand its meaning, nor will Patrick, for either of us.  It is inscribed in our hearts, in a place beyond words.

Which books would you add to this list?


[Author’s note: this was originally written in 2013.  Patrick is about to turn 13, and we’re still reading, currently Moby Dick!]

Copyright 2016 Kiernan O’Connor




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  1. Hi Kiernan. One of my favorite ways to “waste time” with my children is to read aloud to them, so thanks for this inspirational post. My oldest, a girl, and I have a similar tradition as you and your son, but now her younger brother is old enough to join us. So a question for you, thoughts about gender neutral books brothers and sisters can enjoy together?

    • Thanks, Lisa! That’s a great question. Their taste in reading on their own will diverge as they mature, partly due to sex, but not entirely. There’s no need to consider gender when reading aloud – great books are great, period. My son loved Little Women, Little House, Pollyanna, Caddy Woodlawn, etc, and my oldest daughter has listened to Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, etc.
      One of the reasons for this is your voice, which helps to form their ear for good story.

  2. Nora Abraham on

    Very inspirational especially to us worn out parents out there that feel like failures because we are not living out the dream of sitting by the fire place every night with all the quiet children circled around reading for an hour. Ha! I realize more and more each day that it’s not about doing “enough” it’s about doing “something” at all and persevering. Thanks for this!

  3. I’m glad I read this. My son will be 21 next month. It has been years since I have read to him.

    He is currently in college and has discovered philosophy. Some nights he will ask me about God, or Heaven, or other spiritual things that he wants direction on. He has also discovered Thomas Aquinas.

    I just finished Fr (Bishop) Barron’s book on Aquinas and there were things in there that we had discussed in the past but that Aquinas and Fr Barron put into words far better than I ever could. I earmarked the pages for my son to read. But you know, I cannot always be sure he reads what I give him. So I’m going to do what you do. I’m going to read to him! Fortunately the passages aren’t long. I see it as a way to complement our prior conversations; it reinforces his trust that I am paying attention to him and care about his concerns; it hopefully will reinforce his faith; and, he’ll get a better gist of Aquinas.

    Thanks for the hint, Kiernan!

    • Kudos, Michael! My middle name is Aquinas. My mother had ambitions for me. I suggest you introduce your son to Flannery O’Connor. Her work is thoroughly imbued with Aquinas. In fact, I’m currently reading Marion Montgomery’s “Hillbilly Thomist,” a fascinating exploration of her and her work, and how her understanding of Thomas manifested itself in her art. God bless you.

  4. My husband read ANIMAL FARM to myself and my son, who was a few days when we started. I remember my Mom thinking that this was a bit much for an infant’s night time routine, but we enjoyed it. Now that he’s 18 months, I think we need to get back into this habit. Thanks for the reminder and I would recommend ANIMAL FARM, FAHRENHEIT 451, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and especially a lesser known young adult novel, SEES BEHIND TREES, about the way an Native American tribe adapts to a legally blind boy. And possibly THE GIVER, not the movie, mind you, but the book only. 😉

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