When I was little, my mom used to read to me from a book which contained Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales. The book was a Spanish translation of his complete works and it was only until years later that I realized that the stories there were first conceived in English; that El Príncipe Feliz was actually The Happy Prince, and that El Gigante Egoísta started out as The Selfish Giant. No matter. I love Oscar Wilde to this day, and even if I had never read anything else by him but those fairy tales he would still remain a hugely influential writer for me, because it is through him and his beautiful, lyrical, and haunting stories that I can trace my love of books and reading.
In the story, The Happy Prince, a young royal who ignored the suffering of others during his lifetime, is reborn as a gilded and bejeweled statue and placed on a pedestal in the center of the city by the town councilors for all to admire. From his vantage point, he can see the pain and destitution of the city’s poor for the first time. Deeply moved, he asks the help of a passing swallow to peel the gold leaf from his body and pick the jewels from his eyes and sword and distribute them to help alleviate the suffering of his people. Touched by the prince’s plea, the swallow delays his flight south for the winter to help his new friend. When the statue is no longer beautiful, the town councilors tear the prince down. The swallow, having missed his chance to fly south for the winter, dies of cold. Later, God asks one of his angels to bring him the two most precious things in the city. The angel returns with the swallow, and the broken heart at the center of the statue.
For many of us, books and stories are the first time we recognize that ideas can exist outside of our own direct experience. They are our first introduction to complicated moral, philosophical, and social questions. And, unlike movies or TV shows, they require the reader or listener to be an active participant and provide the pictures to go along with the words. When we are young, they also require a loving guide to lead us through the worlds these stories inhabit.