I learned to read when I was about four years old, but, like most children, I read only picture books until I was seven. My parents brought me to the library every two weeks, and I filled up on library books at school as well, but picture books didn’t last long; I ended up reading them over and over because we had limited television options and, of course, no computer. (I was also a clumsy child with seasonal allergies who didn’t like to play outside.)
I occasionally glanced at the library shelves full of books for older children, and sometimes took one down to page through it, but I was intimidated. They were so thick, and if there were illustrations at all, they appeared only once a chapter or so. I was capable of reading these “chapter books,” but they seemed like too much work.
Every summer, we loaded up the car and drove for what seemed like months, but was probably about eight hours, to our summer house to spend two or three weeks. Before leaving town, we took a special trip to the library to take out an extra-large stack of books on extended summer loan.
The summer I was seven, my mother used part of her precious borrowing allotment to take out a few “chapter books” for me. “But I don’t like chapter books,” I said. She ignored me.
Of course, I read through most of my picture books in the car on the way to the coast, and even dipped into some of my brothers’ horror comics to pass the time. (They both suffered from carsickness, and so most of the reading material was mine for the duration of the trip.)
For the first week of our stay at the summer house, I was forced to play outside far more than I would have liked. My books were all read, we had no television, and a seven-year-old, even one who likes math, can only play cribbage for so long. We found things to do: there was a tree behind the house full of fascinating fuzzy yellow caterpillars; there was a rusted old bedspring in the next lot that we liked to bounce on (and somehow none of us got tetanus); our parents took us to the beach or the nearby swimming hole every second day; and the blueberries needed picking and eating.
Then it rained. We were stuck in the house, lying on the creaky couch in the living room. We groaned and rolled our eyes at the tedium. We pressed our noses against the glass to make interesting smudges or write in the steam from our breath.
And then I saw, on the endtable, the little stack of “chapter books” my mother had brought for me.
I picked one up and leafed through it. I don’t remember what book it was, but there was a full-page woodcut at the beginning of each chapter, and the rest of the pages seemed dense and busy with text. The first woodcut was of two boys and a girl, maybe brothers and a sister just like my brothers and me. And there was a duck, I think. The duck caught my interest.
It was still raining. I started to read.
I read that entire book that afternoon, and started another after dinner. When bedtime came, I hid in the bathroom with that book until my parents threatened to shut down the power if I didn’t turn out the lights and go to bed.
The experience of being entirely transported into another world was one that would shape the rest of my childhood and adolescence. Until I pursued an English degree at university and ruined it all, reading became the most important activity in my life.
I might never have found it if we’d had cable TV, video games, or Internet access at that summer house.
These days, I marvel at those of my students who read for pleasure. These kids have no memory of a world without computers, or even without cell phones. At any given moment there are myriad forms of instant gratification available at their fingertips. Even so, some of them still love reading. My IB students and I had a discussion last term about the future of the novel, and they rhapsodized about books; Anny told us that her bookshelf is near her bed and sometimes she’ll pull the books out and smell the pages because they make her so happy.
Most of my students, however, have no interest in reading, and I have to say that I don’t entirely blame them. I don’t even read much for pleasure any more, especially fiction – I watch television and films, read blogs online, and listen to nonfiction as podcasts and audiofiles.
I’m a writer and English teacher, and was a voracious reader from the age of seven. If I’m not reading, what chance do my overstimulated students have, especially if they’ve never been bored long enough to reach out to a book they might normally not be bothered with?
A colleague and I were discussing his children one day, and he said that he and his wife had been debating the restrictions they should place on computer use and television viewing. He said that during their conversation, he’d had a revelation. “I want my kids to have the chance to be bored,” he said.
How much creative discovery has taken place because a child or an adult was trapped inside on a rainy day and all the picture books had been read, all the video games had been won, or the cable had gone out? How much more would teenagers learn about themselves if they put their cell phones away for a few days at a time?
We could argue that kids go to school, so they know plenty about boredom. But would they be able to make more use of the “boring” hours they spend sitting at a desk if they had more chances, on their own time, to lie on the couch, look around the room, and find something new to read? If they spent more time wandering through the woods, picking up sticks to use as toys, or examining the insides of flowers?
Some of my most stimulating memories of my childhood are of doing these kinds of things, and some of the most interesting people I know, young and old, have been brought up environments where there was no, or limited, access to televisions, computers, game consoles, etc. They got bored, and they had to do something about it.
Most importantly, someone was there to hand them a book, a chemistry set, or a basketball, and say, “See what you can do with this.” Is this what’s missing from many of our kids’ lives? Is this what Anny’s parents did – turned off the television, handed her a book, and said, “Try this on”?
My greatest fear is not that many young people will never learn to enjoy books, although I do think that’s a shame. My greatest fear is that many will never discover things they could really love, things that could make them better, happier people, because they’re filling their time with easy distractions.
I love easy distractions as much as the next person, and you are as likely to find me listening to BlipFM and playing solitaire as reading a novel these days. But at least I had a chance. What chance do some of these kids have?