Saturday, December 4, 2010

Reading books as "silver bullet"?

Len Waks reminded us earlier this week of the impact of reading books. It’s not surprising, I suppose, that we who inhabit academic settings might have a vested interest in promoting the writing and reading of books. But my intuition is that Len is right, and his post reminded me of the lengths I went to turn my daughter into a book reader.

Emily was a rising sophomore in high school the summer I decided that I couldn’t abandon her to a lifetime without the entertainment, the consolation and the provocation of books. It wasn’t that she couldn’t read. She read easily and well, comprehending and putting thoughts into words without difficulty. But she was not “a reader.”

So I played “Let’s Make a Deal.” I offered this 14 year old an article of clothing for every book she completed that summer. Her eyes lit up but did not light upon a book until I started to read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible to her one June night at bedtime. (Do I need to remind any of us that we all like to be read to, even when, especially when, we are “too old for that”?) I read about 10 pages to her each night for five nights in a row. One night I was not at home when she went to bed. She picked up the book without me, started reading and never looked back. When she completed the book, she earned a skirt. When she completed the second book that summer, she earned a top that went with it. When she completed the third book, she didn’t ask for any sartorial compensation. Today, ten years later, she is never without a book close at hand.

I sometimes wonder why she became a reader that summer after ten years of successful schooling had failed to lead her there. Was it the external reinforcement of a material reward? Perhaps, the companionship of mother and daughter reading and talking about the same book? Or did those two extrinsic elements keep her nose in the book long enough to feel the intrinsic pay-off of reading as a window into minds and worlds not our own?

More importantly, what was it about reading in and for school that did not encourage that habit? I’m not a believer in “silver bullets” when it comes to solving educational problems, but if I were, the one I could believe in would be turning all the Emilys of the world into readers of books.


Joe Meinhart said...

"what was it about reading in and for school that did not encourage that habit?"
I loved reading when I was a child, both in school and for personal pleasure. And I had teachers that encouraged reading and visits to the library.
So many of my undergrad students seem to view reading as a chore, and as children only read for a class assignment, never for personal pleasure or growth. Often, their parents emphasized entertainment, which seems to come these days electronically.

Leonard Waks said...

My parents took me to the big main branch of the Brooklym public library every Thursday evening for years. My biggest "treat" of the week was the book I could take out and have "all for myself".

I did the same for my son, and read to him every single night until he was at least 9 years old. When we went through Sherlock Holmes I got us special Sherlock hats and pipes, and we used to curl up together. We had it all, Dumas, Verne, E.B. White. And we made sure he had nice editions of all of these for his personal library in his bedroom.

Good thing, too because those were the last books he ever touched.

We didn't have TV in the house, and Veronica destroyed every CD she ever found. But he was always one step ahead of us and when action games landed in the clouds we were defeated.

I don't know the answer, but I do know this: those kids who survive this addictive curse and form the reading habit will survive and thrive in the digital age; those who do not will be in very serious trouble. That was the point of putting up the post about Mitch Joel: I mean, here is the guru of web marketing, for Godsakes, and that is his message: the most important thing to do is read books.