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.