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December 17, 2008

Holiday Reading

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There was a time, a long, long time ago, when I dreaded the approach of the holiday season. It was a couple of years after I had arrived in New York from Paris at the age of 19, not knowing anyone. I had settled here but my social life was limited, and so was my shaky command of English. I knew that the impending holidays would only serve to remind me that friends and family were an ocean away.

One year, I unexpectedly got a call from one of my acquaintances, the cartoonist Art Spiegelman, who had himself recently moved back to New York. He asked me if I had any plans for Thanksgiving, and I asked in return, “What is Thanksgiving?” We made plans to go to Chinatown for duck dinner that Thursday night. During dinner, Art—delighted to have found someone even more alienated than himself—enjoyed filling me in on all the details of the American custom: cranberry? What is cranberry? (There are none in France.) Sweet potatoes? Pumpkin pie? After dinner, he invited me back to his place, where he showed me his collection of comics (we have that pickup line in French, but it’s usually, “Let me show you my collection of Japanese prints…”)

I trusted my attraction—besides, I knew I also stood a chance to get an invaluable crash course in American culture—and soon I was cozily nestled next to Art on his couch, while he read aloud to me page after page of Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay, a strip that ran from 1905 to 1913. I had never been read to before. My parents were too busy when I was little and, in any case, it wasn’t being done; my teachers had declaimed poems that they then had us memorize, but to do so, they stood on a podium in front of the whole class. No one had ever held me close and read aloud to me, bringing the words to life just for me. Art was infinitely patient, going back and explaining words I didn’t know, while pointing out all the extraordinary visual fireworks and rhythms in McCay’s pages. He was reading with intonation and a whole magical kingdom was unfolding right there and then, unleashing a new visual effulgence every time another page was turned. It was a stunning experience: How could I not fall in love with this man, and with the medium he so passionately inhabited? I had until then always loved reading, but it was partly because reading isolated me and protected me from others. At that moment, though, I discovered a new hidden dimension: the pleasures of sharing a work you love and that of being read to, all of which must have contributed to making me want to be a publisher, in turn sharing what I love with others.

Nowadays, decades later, I greet the holiday season with eager anticipation: It’s a moment when, in our busy and overbooked lives, our kids and we can all be together, and maybe a moment when we can all listen to one of us read aloud.