Perhaps thinking of a sparkling June day in the green English countryside (puffy white clouds above, temperatures in the low 70s, a light southwesterly breeze, neither annoying insects nor humidity, the sound of birdsong), Henry James chose “summer afternoon” as the most beautiful words in the English language. I choose “happy childhood” for its rarity, innocence and optimism. Unbounded by temporal horizons, untroubled by what Gerard Manley Hopkins described as, “All that is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil,” the happy child eludes thoughts of death, struggle, and acquisitiveness. The happy child has neither past nor future, at first anyway, and a childhood of reading offers up immediacy as its own reward, and “flow” as the natural structure of the Universe. Sixty years ago, in my own childhood (which was, for a time, happy), I was utterly unaware of the horrors of the Korean War with its wintertime death for Marines far from home, unaware of the paranoid fantasies of Right-wing politicians pursuing imaginary Communists into suburban homes and government bureaus, even unaware of the standing Nuclear Threat. There were lots of summer afternoons when a happy childhood was spent away from time’s demands amid the thrilling buzz of books, without the promise of extrinsic reward or the threat and crisis of compulsion.

Proust, who recollected his childhood reading days as those “we lived so fully”—the remainders of which were the “only calendars” we have kept of “days that have vanished”, understood childhood reading as one sweet murmur. Who can say what Kafka remembered of his childhood reading of Sherlock Holmes, fairy tales, and travel narratives of “distant lands”? Speaking for Kafka, one could surmise that he thought of them in the same way as Proust, who was his contemporary, or as me, who was not. And bedtime stories, ghost tales and Scottish romances, read to Stevenson by his beloved nurse Cummie, no doubt exerted a magical influence on his imagination. Happy children are immortal. A day reading, even an hour with a book, is play, pure and simple. And what is play if not Kant’s “purposeless purposiveness”, a foretaste of autonomy that is itself a prelude to Authenticity. Play of this sort is a place where the child first experiences solitude and inwardness as positive, hopeful things, experience freed from limits of any sordid social sort and un-policed by the gloomy detectives from the Everyday Squad.  Adults are nowhere to be seen, rules do not exist. Unlike under the benevolent regime of adolescent reading, there are no prescribed texts or didactic exercises; there are no grades to earn, rules to obey, formalities to observe, penalties to suffer, judgments to suffer or dogmas to parrot. There is no cant of any sort. Expectations fail to hover above a child’s head (away, that is, from No Child Left Behind and Standardized Testing which starts in fourth grade nowadays) and there are no harsh consequences. Under the appropriate social circumstances (an historically determined, bourgeois ideal)—where a child is stress free and left to his own devices, reading lets a child send his mind out wandering, comfortably undisturbed by the mudslides that will surely come later. In this regard, happy childhood reading most closely resembles the hopeful wandering of our most ancient ancestors, the hunters and gatherers. Most children don’t experience this interlude. Those who do are the lucky ones. These days happy children often spend up to 56 hours each week staring at one manner of screen or another. More and more children live in poverty. And this is a loss for mind-wandering and inner peace. “Don’t let your mind wander!” they’ll tell you later, these Police of the Everyday, rapping your knuckles with a ruler as you gaze out the school window at an autumn storm raging in the elm trees. “Stay on task!” these first, mostly benign representatives of the Everyday shout. Mysteriously though, the happy child IS on task, removed from the taskmaster. Later it will be much harder to stay on task away from the taskmasters.

In his fine book, “Flow: The psychology of optimal experience” (Harper and Row, New York, 1990), the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi examines a cognitive state of genuine immersion where joy predominates over other emotions and “time-passing” loses all meaning. According to Csikszentmihalyi, “flow” is the state of being fully engaged in a challenging activity requiring skill—usually skill acquired after a long period of devoted study, and practice that merges action and awareness. Flow is characterized by an almost preternatural concentration, an unselfconscious focus that gives the actor a sense of control beyond time. And, where the actor isn’t beyond time, the sense of time is at least greatly altered. Childhood readers, of course, aren’t engaging in exactly the kind of flow under discussion in Csikszentmihalyi’s book. Mostly he’s interested in dynamic flow in sports and art—the musician engaged in rendering a beautiful sonata from memory after a long period of devoted study. These kinds of high-level and deeply somatic experiences are beyond the ken of children who’ve barely begun to read. Nevertheless, childhood reading simulates flow at the level of full engagement. This is the kind of experience noted by Proust and Stevenson, an engagement no doubt shared by any number of childhood readers for whom the book involves “losing” oneself in the experience. Thought about properly, wandering around in a book is a kind of “getting lost” that is itself a necessary prerequisite to finding the path. How many fairy tales involve dark forests and losing one’s way (Hansel and Gretel eg.) or falling down the rabbit hole or going along with Daniel Boone as he inches across the Cumberland Gap into the deep oak wilderness of Kentucky?

Autonomy is wandering away from the taskmasters while remaining on task. Being lost in a book is just mindfulness undressed from its MRI jargon and given a dusting of inner peace and freedom. In childhood reading we glimpse the Promised Land. We are given its means—mindfulness and alienation (in the sense of inwardness)

Nicholas Carr, in his book “The Glass Cage” (about automation and its downside) relates the story of an aboriginal tribe of coastal Canadian Indians called “Shushwaps”, who lived rich, full lives in the Thompson River Valley. They had everything in place, fruits, nuts, berries, and salmon to eat, and settled, comfortable habitations in which to live. Nevertheless, every thirty years or so, the tribe, directed by elders, pulled up stakes and left their homes, moving to new territory. They forced themselves, despite their comfort, to find new streams, new areas where balsamroot was plentiful, and where there were strange new game trails. Life would then regain its meaning and be worth living. Everyone would feel rejuvenated and happy.

The wisdom of “wandering around” characterizes childhood reading. It remains an ideal throughout the reading life. It shows us the path to authenticity through a forest of duty and obligation with a promise of happiness and rejuvenation. Much is written in the popular psychology literature these days of “resilience”, probably because denizens of late-capitalist societies are under such relentless pressure from all sides. Difficulties in life pile up, Karmic Disasters abound, and distractions installed by the Everyday Police disguise themselves as amusements; but the ideal of childhood mindfulness remains. Jim Harrison, in his novel “The Big Seven” writes about how that ideal can help an adult construe his consternations:

“Life was just life, rolling on in inevitable disorder. Now, however, he was aware that he had to work his way up through the sludge that had accumulated in his life. It seemed compacted in his soul. He wanted the clear cool feeling of a ten-year-old getting up at dawn for a hike around a lake. It was a purity of intent that he wanted rather than sliding from one confused day into another.”

In reading we aim for that “clear cool feeling” of a ten-year-old getting up at dawn for his hike around the lake.