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Books Column: The curious incident of the family reading (excitedly) at bedtime


Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

On a double bonanza for my family when reading Sherlock Holmes. Plus: unusual Finnish units of distance.

One of the deep pleasures of fatherhood is reading aloud to your children. I’ve been reading aloud to mine for eight years — I hope they’ll let me round out the decade — and still find myself regularly surprised by the richness of the practice.

As the children have grown, so has the depth and complexity of the stories we choose, together, to read. Lately, it’s been Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original text, courtesy a handsomely-bound edition from Penguin Classics.

I admit I have to sleuth out the material that’s suitable for the young folk beforehand. Sometimes too much menace lies in the mystery; sometimes the author’s man-of-his-times prejudices overpower the plot; and sometimes the themes are simply, well, too boring for kids. But it’s a thick book, and often we strike gold — and the tale keeps the children spellbound for many bedtimes in succession.

The other night, in fact, we had a double bonanza, with Doyle’s 1892 story, “Silver Blaze”. The mystery concerns a missing racehorse and its murdered trainer, and involves a jaunt by Watson and Holmes up to moor country, plus some light wagering on the ponies at the fictitious Wessex Cup.

At one point, Holmes and Watson are riding in a coach with the horse’s owner and the inspector assigned to investigate the murder. Watson narrates:

“Colonel Ross still wore an expression which showed the poor opinion which he had formed of my companion’s [Holmes’] ability, but I saw by the Inspector’s face that his attention had been keenly aroused.

“‘You consider [a recent Holmes observation] to be important?’ he asked.

“‘Exceedingly so.’

“‘Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?’

“‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’

“‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’

“‘That was the curious incident,’ remarked Sherlock Holmes.”

My wife and I, having worked in publishing and bookselling for many years, each let out a shout of joy when I read that passage — for, of course, it contains the title of another book that many readers of this column will know well. Namely: Mark Haddon’s prize-winning novel about a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Neither of us was aware of the provenance of Haddon’s title. We held a quick sidebar with the kids to explain why happening across the phrase in Sherlock Holmes tickled us so, and from there the moment entered into our mutual, meta story-space: another item banked in the family’s shared miscellany.

Bedtime reading has made an outsized contribution to this miscellany. It’s a sheer numbers game: eight years of reading, with new delights possible at every turn of the page. By comparison, learning to ride a bike never stood a chance. Instead, we’ve reaped the most bountiful harvest simply sitting by the bunk beds each night, reaching for a book.

This evening, for example, a new item entered the miscellany, via a book about words. Meet the Finnish unit of measurement, the poronkusema, which is the distance a reindeer can travel before — you’d never guess this in eight years of trying — it has to pee. Yes, the giggles in the bedroom — the sheer glee — required a fresh settling down.

Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is one of our favourite poems, pinned in the firmament of the Williams miscellany. I’ll have to read it again to the kids this week, but with a small adjustment to the final lines, which is also how I feel, drawing up the duvet on another column:

But I have promises to keep 

and a poronkusema to go before I sleep

and a poronkusema to go before I sleep. DM


Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.


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  • David Bristow says:

    The curious case of the reindeer in the yellow snow. We too have our lexicon of family favourites, one of the most enduring of which is judenidewenka – spelling variable. (we assume it was a juvenile offender of sorts)Which is what one family member was, apparently called by his kindergarten teacher.

  • Derina Wille says:

    Delightful article! Thank you, Ben Williams. May you inspire many parents to discover the joys of reading aloud to their children.

  • Gill Green says:

    Amen and amen! I can’t help feeling that the levels of education in our country would be a lot better if more parents adopted this enriching practice.

  • Frances Harman-Henlen says:

    Derina, you have said just what I was thinking. Wonderful article, Ben.

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