In celebration of the bookworm

The term "bookworm," which dates back to Shakespeare's contemporary Ben Jonson, has never been a very flattering description. In her new book "Enchanted Hunters," Harvard professor Maria Tatar tries to reclaim voracious reading as a marvel, not an escape.

"Child readers are often portrayed as isolated and cut off," she writes, and are probably told, as Oprah was by her mother, to drop the books and go outside. These young bookworms, she argues, "have earned the right to a metamorphosis."

"Enchanted Hunters" explores the history of childhood reading and offers expositions of cherished old companions from Hans Christian Andersen and "Peter Pan" to Maurice Sendak and "Charlotte's Web." Tatar also traces the practice -- and paradox -- of bedtime reading and discusses the tutoring role of fear and horror in children's books.

But the real energy of the book lies in its advocacy. In Tatar's hands, childhood stories are antidotes to boredom and tools of emotional instruction, but first and foremost they are agents of delight, more than able to hold their own against "Kung Fu Panda" and Nintendo Wii.

The book's appendix gathers a caravan of tributes to early reading by famous writers: "I wish I were ten years old again," Nobel prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing writes, just so she can read certain books for the first time all over again.

Tatar is a relentless, passionate champion of reading, but her related aim to suggest how stories work their enchantment is less convincing. The problem is rooted, I think, in the distance she sees between the spell of a child with a book and the disillusionment of the grown-up. Tatar describes the "jolts and shimmer of books we read as children" that produce "readers who are seen as more astonished, bedazzled, and engrossed than their adult counterparts."

"As we grow older," she says, "we begin to draw boundaries and develop the sense of critical detachment that makes it harder to inhabit a fictional world."

This seems to me to describe the experience of fantasy rather than all fiction; it also seems clouded in nostalgia. Surely realist fiction becomes easier to inhabit the more experience you have with the world and with other books. It may feel more like immersion than a spell, but it is still a full kind of habitation.

There is continuity between our enchantments. Reading as a child can be a prelude to even better reading. We go on to hunt bigger game.

A related problem is that Tatar's preference for fantasy leads to a misreading of what gives most stories vividness. She points out that fairy tales and other children's stories show a preference for vague, abstract descriptions, but she gives them too much credit for mobilizing the imagination: "Relying on what appear to be little more than banal formulations -- 'magnificent,' 'elegant,' and 'beautiful' -- fairy tales still manage to produce sensory fireworks, pulling just the right strings to arouse a sense of wonder and create in our minds the objects described. Our perceptual apparatus is not weighed down by a barrage of descriptive details but instead given a few concise clues on how to build an image that is, even in its filminess and flimsiness, complete."

But it's not those placeholder adjectives -- "magnificent" and "beautiful" -- that do the work. It is unexpectedness that creates vividness: to use one of Tatar's own examples, Thumbelina in her nutshell bed with "a rose petal" as "her coverlet," or the strange mirror in Harry Potter in which you see images of the deep desires of your heart. Tatar is too impressed by "gorgeous flowers" and "wonderful sights."

In the end, Tatar's book oversells the experience of awe and almost wills us toward enchantment. Of a scene in C.S. Lewis' great Narnia Chronicles, she writes: "Readers experience the same tingling sensation and the vertiginous excitement of witnessing Narnia come into being." She cites the "dizzying infinite regress" of noticing that the book on the bunny's nightstand in "Goodnight, Moon" is titled "Goodnight, Moon."

I risk a little Grinch-work because I agree wholeheartedly with Tatar's goal: Let kids read and explore whatever engages them. But we also want them to go on from "The Cat in the Hat" to "The Catcher in the Rye," Narnia to Nabokov (from whom Tatar takes the book's title), "Little Women" to "Little Dorrit."

It's not this book's aim to establish that bridge, but its effect is to exaggerate the distance between the spell of early books and the vision-like experience of more mature literature.