This is a longish post, but you will want to read it in its entirety. Trust me.
When Christopher Hitchens got the Dawkins Award in Houston, I posted the following report from Chron.com:
Though [Hitchens] was asked a variety of questions from the audience, none appeared to elicit more interest than the one asked by eight-year-old Mason Crumpacker, who wanted to know what books she should read. In response, Hitchens first asked where her mother was and the girl indicated that she was siting beside her. He then asked to see them once the presentation was over so that he could give her a list.
As the event drew to a close, Mason and her mom, Anne Crumpacker of Dallas, followed him out. Surrounded by attendees wanting a glance of the famed author, Hitchens sat on a table just outside of the ballroom and spent about 15 minutes recommending books to Mason.
Here’s a photo from Chron.com of Hitchens speaking to Mason (note the person behind her holding a cat):
If you read the comments after that original post, you’ll know that Anne Crumpacker, apparently a reader here, added a few observations. She’s now sent me a scan of the reading list that Hitchens recommended to Mason, as well as a beautiful thank-you note that Mason wrote to Hitchens. I’ve had it forwarded to Christopher via Richard, and post it here with Mason’s permission. Finally, at my request Anne wrote her own account of the incident:
First, the reading list, about which Anne says, “Most of the notes were written by me, but he took my pen to write ‘Tale of Two Cities’ and ‘Sunset at Blandings’.”
And here is Mason’s wonderful thank-you letter, which, unless you’re made of stone, will make you tear up:
Dear Mr. Hitchens,
Thank you for your kindness to me and all of the wonderful books you recommended to help me think for myself. Thank you also for taking my question very seriously. When I was talking to you I felt important because you treated me like a grown up. I feel very fortunate to have met you. I think more children should read books. I also think that all adults should be honest to children like you to me. For the rest of my life I will remember and cherish our meeting and will try to continue to ask questions.
P.S. I would like to start with “The Myths” by Robert Graves.
What a wonderful and grounded child! Richard told me this about her: “By the way, Mason was one of the children who sat at the front of my lecture on the following day, and one of the children whom I called up on stage, ‘Christmas Lectures’-style, to help me demonstrate the App of The Magic of Reality.”
Here’s a picture of Mason, used with her permission:
Finally, Mason’s mom Anne sends the following account of the episode:
“Mommy, I want to ask a question.”
I looked up from my cheesecake, “Yes?”
“No, I want to ask a question on the microphone. Can I?”
“I suppose.” Sip of coffee.“Is it a good question?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Is it respectful?”
“Well, how do I do it?”
I’m back to the cheesecake, “You’ll need to find the man with the microphone.”
And then, in one of my more embarrassing parenting moments, my eight-year-old daughter trotted off into the darkened ballroom of approximately one thousand hardcore atheists in pursuit of an answer. Meanwhile, I was smugly back to dessert, confident that there was no way in hell that she could work her way to “the man with the microphone.” Now I could listen to the question and answers in peace. Until a little voice said,
“What books should I read?”
Now, anyone who thinks that a loving mother from Texas would plant her child to ask a question at an atheist convention would either have to be half-crazy or have never been to Texas.
Rick Perry at the Response (this is where we live).
That is why Christopher Hitchens, asked, “Where’s your mother?’ Because, unlike the blog that broke the story, I was on the other side of that darkened ballroom choking on cheesecake.
But, that is what it is like to be Mason’s mom.
So, where did the question come from? I know all too well where she got the idea. Earlier that day she had been in line with me while Mr. Hitchens and Dr. Richard Dawkins were signing books. Mason is rather impressed with Richard Dawkins for his Growing Up in the Universe series. She figures he gets “about a million dollars a word for talking.” However, Christopher Hitchens hadn’t hit her radar yet, but she overheard me praising his closing remarks (04:36) at the Hitchens/ Dembski debate held in the Dallas area in November 2010, “It was just brilliant when you encourage the students to ask questions and read for themselves, “ I sputtered. Little pitchers have big ears….
The banquet had not been billed as an open Q&A, but I was as excited as everyone else in the room to have “Hitch” answering questions and donning out “Hitchslaps” to absent adversaries, which he resumed after her little question. Although he offered to talk to Mason alone after the program, I thought this would be forgotten in the hubbub. However, he didn’t forget and what happen next has sparked such interest that you can actually Google my eight-year-old’s name. For the record, her father and I never gave our permission for her name, her image, my name, or our hometown to be published. It just happened and we can only hope that we will be supported by the freethought community and left alone by everyone else. So far, so good.
The reading list has gone viral over various atheist blogs. Mason is even been given an alternate Christian reading list in a Calvinist YouTube video from Manchester, England. We allowed her to respond in the comments. Frankly, she is loving the attention.
[JAC note: I asked Anne if Mason had seen this odious video. Anne responded: “And yes, she has seen the video. She rolled her eyes and said, ‘Will you listen to this guy! He must go to Baylor!’ We let her respond in the comments to the video. She loved it.”
Here is what Mason wrote on YouTube in response to the video:
“This is why I did not ask YOU!!! All you ever talked about in this vid was Christianity!!!!!! I’ve read the Bible and frankly it’s ALL scary!!! You have to learn that sometimes kids need to boost their intellectual capability and look beyond God! P.S. Mr Hitchens has a WAY, WAY better taste in books ! At least he asked me what I wanted to read!! >:P.] Now back to Anne’s tale:
As for me, I am grateful for this opportunity to respond and clear up a few misconceptions.
The conversation took place on an exhibit table just outside the ballroom as the banquet was coming to a close. Mr. Hitchens and Mason were eye-to-eye. I didn’t have a camera, since I was so surprised by the spontaneity of the whole thing that I had left in my purse under the table in the ballroom, but I grabbed a program and took notes. There is a perception that Christopher Hitchens gave Mason a list, but it wasn’t like that. It was far more special and interesting.
I’ll paraphrase as best as I can from memory. I’ll mess up the details, but I’ll capture the spirit….
“Well, so you like to read?’
“What are you reading now?”
“Good. Which one are you on? Which number?”
“Oh, well, really the Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman. I like it a lot.”
“Good. So, is this your first meeting like this?”
“Why did you come? Curiosity? Wait, I won’t answer my own question.”
Pause…. “I wanted to hear other great freethinkers because that is what I want to be when I grow up.”
(I jumped in and explained that we are trying to convince Mason that she is a child and can make up her mind later. We just want her to be a critical thinker for now.)
“Well then, you should better start with some science books. I hear Richard has written quite a good one. What is it called?’ Laughter from the small crowd forming…“The Magic of Reality,” someone offered. “and then some Greek and Roman myths. A man named Robert Graves has a nice collection . I like them for the beauty of the language.”
“I’ve already read those.”
“Yes.” (Well, no, not really. She has read many Greek and Roman myths, but not Robert Graves. She recognized his name because she adores Derek Jacobi in I, Claudius. Number one fan in the eight-year-old set. Would love a photo.)
“Do you know your history? Are you learning it in school?”
“I go to a French school, so it is mostly French history. Last year we did le Prehistoire. This year we are doing le Moyen Age.”
“Impressive. Well, I think you have that covered then. French? Any Montesquieu? No, that probably comes later.” A glance at me, “Satirical works are good. Any Shakespeare?“
“Yes, he’s good…. hmm. Well, let’s add Chaucer then. So, tell me, do you know how other little girls are treated in the world?”
“Sometimes they are hurt… abused.”
“That’s right. You may enjoy reading a book by a young lady I know where she talks about that. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, maybe just the first part where she talks about growing up.”
“Oh, yes. I know. My mom is half-way through the Qur’an,” (I am indeed. Hopelessly stuck. Unable to go on.)
“ What else… You’re doing better than I did at your age (ah, flattery!). How old was I when I first read A Tale of Two Cities? Yes, that’s good. Any Dickens really. Dickens teaches children to love to read.”
“Ok, how about something for a bit of fun. Any PG. Wodehouse? No?”
A crowd member offers, “Sunset at Blandings.”
A smile of recognition from Hitchens, “Yes, excellent.”
We get notice that the banquet is about to break up and Hitchens is being helped to his feet. He looked tired, but was smiling. I can’t remember what he said to Mason or me in parting, but not wishing the meeting to end I quickly asked, “Any philosophers?”
“Hume. David Hume, yes, but you’ll have to help her with the language. Good-bye. Good luck.”
“Could you email me the list? I have a little girl and we would really love the list.”
“Of course,” and I started collecting emails. People were taking about my horrible little notes and someone from the Houston Chronicle interviewed me quickly using a cellphone camera.
The next morning Mason and I were “outed” as non-believers. Me really—Mason is too young to decide.
I’m not a professional writer, just a mom, but if I get to make only one comment it would be this: There isn’t a magic reading list. Never was. Never will be. The reason what transpired that night was memorable was the wondrous Socratic feel of the exchange. Here was a man, a great thinker of our time who has spent his life developing and honing his intellect, challenging the next generation to pick up the mantle. What all these books have in common is they demand us to question, search and engage. They don’t preach, patronize or indoctrinate. They are joyful expression of the whole of the human experience. The very best examples of a life fully lived.
We are about to lose a giant among us, but we, as atheists know there can be no greater Valhalla then to join the great conversation of the philosophers. We can honor Christopher Hitchens’ life by teaching our children his best virtues: to study broadly, to laugh heartily, to fight ardently, and to question relentlessly. Books are timeless companions and friends. Mason will surely spend her life in the company of illustrious authors gone before. Naturally, she was introduced to many of them that night by a kind man, with flashing eyes, sitting at a table who is about to join their company.
Note by JAC: Texas is a hard place to live for atheists and agnostics, so perhaps readers would like to post a brief message to Mason, her mom, or both. If one little girl can be taught to think for herself, so can a million young people.
Many thanks to Anne and Mason for sharing their experience. Oh, and here’s the reading list from Chron.com:
Hitchens’ list of books and authors: Dawkins’ Magic of Reality, Greek and Roman myths, particularly those compiled by Robert Graves, anything satirical, all of Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, Ayaan Hirsi Ali (author of Infidel and Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations), PG Wodehouse (“for fun”), David Hume, and Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.