The Trouble with Reading

The Storm in the BarnA few days ago my daughter finally got around to reading the copy of Matt Phelan’s “The Storm in the Barn “ that she got for her birthday. It’s a great story and she really enjoyed it, which made me happy. I went down into my office to find something else for her to read, brought back Neil Gaiman’s “Death: The High Cost of Living”. She looked it over for a moment and then said “This doesn’t really fit on my list. I’d have to put it under my ‘Extra Choice’ ones and I already have too many of those.”

See, she’s got reading assignments for school. They’re given a list of categories/genres from which they are required to read a set number of books. And the teacher approves the books before they can get credit for that category. Apparently comics fit under the extracurricular category (since they’re not “real” literature, I assume). In my daughter’s mind, the Gaiman book didn’t qualify — she already had Fantasy and Extra Choice covered, after all — so she automatically dismissed it as something to read.

This was (and still is) intensely irritating for me. My daughter’s a big reader, always has been. She loves books. But somehow, school has shifted something in her head to think of a new book in terms of an assignment. She couldn’t look at something new and think “Oh, this looks interesting…” without also evaluating as to whether or not it “fits” into the terms set by her teacher. And, in the end, the assignment eclipsed the interest — which, to my mind, is exactly the opposite of what should happen.

Despite my grinding teeth, I tried to explain to my daughter (as best I could) that reading was something done for its own enjoyment and not just as an assignment. This is something she already knows, of course. But I thought it was important to mention that she could survive reading something even if it didn’t line up with any assigned (I did not at any point use the word “bullshit” though I was tempted) school categories.

Did she get it? I honestly don’t know. I’ve got enough confidence in my daughter to know that she’s going to be a reader no matter what’s been assigned.

But I can’t help feeling that it’s a damn shame, somehow.

Each Monday we do a morning production meeting at work. It’s partially a check-in for all of our active projects, but there’s also a fair amount of socializing about our weekends. This past week, one of my coworkers mentioned that she’d gone to see the latest Twilight movie. When she said how much she loved the books, three or four people offered a plain-faced, almost dismissive declaration along the lines of “Oh, I don’t read.”

There’s something wrong with that, somehow. Not just the fact that, for whatever reason, it would never occur to people to pick up a book . . . but also that there’s no sense that, on some level, anyone sees this as a problem.

And, of course, they do read. They read magazines and websites and street signs. But what they’re saying is much more specific. It’s not “I don’t read” but rather “I don’t read books.”

That’s utterly foreign to me, growing up as I did in a house full of books and people who read them. I’d be more judgmental on this point, perhaps, but I’ve been around long enough to recognize that my experiences aren’t always common. The only thing I can compare it to is that small subset of people who say “Oh, I don’t watch television” or “I don’t go to movies” — the sort of position that typically stems from a choice based on some kind of underlying moral or social or religious belief.

But “I don’t read” doesn’t seem to be a position so much as a preference. A matter of taste, along the lines of “I don’t like olives.”

reading-kidBut, of course, it isn’t a matter of taste — or, rather, it shouldn’t be. Your choice of books is defined by your taste — you might hate Twilight but enjoy John Grisham — but an outright dismissal of every book out there is . . . something else entirely.

And don’t try to tell me it’s all the fault of television or computers or video games or the internet. I grew up with most of those things and I’m more or less perpetually jacked in now, yet none of it has dulled my enthusiasm for the printed word. And since I’ve heard this from people of all ages, I don’t believe it’s a generational thing. I realize it might also not be such a new thing either . . . but it does seem that when I hear “I don’t read” these days, there’s no sense of “I know, I know…” behind it. I think, way back when, that used to be there.

All I hear these days is defiance. Of what, I have no idea. Perhaps of my own elitism for assuming that anyone who doesn’t read is, somehow, missing out.

The holidays are, more or less, here. With that in mind, I thought I’d put together a quick list of “Books for People Who Don’t Read” but it seemed more interesting to open it up to everyone in the comments. I’ll start us off with a few of my ideas but throw yours into the mix as well.

10 thoughts on “The Trouble with Reading

  1. For little kids (the ones you get to read to) one of my all time favorites is Dr. Seuss’ “Fox in Sox”.

    Slightly older kids, I head towards Neil Gaiman’s “The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish” but I’m also a big fan of Maurice Sendak’s “In The Night Kitchen”. When I was a kid, I read Mercer Mayer’s “Professor Wormbog in Search for the Zipperump-a-Zoo” over and over and over again.

    For those middle school years, Louise Fitzhugh’s “Harriet the Spy” is a great one that sometimes gets overlooked (and I’m not ashamed to say I still enjoy reading it as an adult). And if your kid doesn’t get hooked on anything by Roald Dahl, you’re on your own.

    More ideas to come (including ones for grown ups) but what about some of yours?

  2. I hooked my son with Imponderables. It’s series of eleven books written by David Feldman. They research and answer the common yet puzzling questions we ponder throughout daily life, such as “how did 7 up get it’s spot?”, “how do astronauts scratch an itch” or “why is one side of aluminum foil shiny and the other side dull?”. The books are effectively a frequently asked questions list for people who wonder why and how the world works as it does.

  3. I agree, TM. I think the most troublesome thing is that people don’t really seem to care that they aren’t reading. I’m guilty of not reading as much anymore. I used to read a book a week…but now with work and writing and blahblahblah…see I have excuses. I’m trying to get my kids hooked on reading so that it becomes a part of their lives. And I need to find time to reintroduce it into my own. Thanks for the post.
    Have any suggestions for comic books that a 5 year old boy might like? I always wished that I’d been introduced to comic books as a girl, but maybe I wasn’t because I’m a girl. I won’t make that mistake with my kiddos.

  4. Tanya,

    I started reading comics around that age, 5 years old or so — swiped from my older brother. Most of those were over my head, a few were too scary. But…

    Depending on what he’s interested in, there’s a few things to try. The fun part is, you’ll get to read them to him too. Which is a great way for him to “learn” comics at a young age.

    There are a lot of kid-friendly books, versions of the DC and Marvel heroes reworked for younger readers. I like the new “Batman: Brave and the Bold” cartoon and so you might check out the corresponding book they’re putting out. You can also pick up trade paperbacks collecting some of the old “Batman” animated series comics. Those are great fun, but possibly too dark at times. You’ll have to see what you think.

    There’s also a pretty silly but fun kid version of “Captain Marvel” (aka Shazam) that they’ve been doing. I think it’s called “Billy Batson and the Power of Shazam”. And there are kid versions of the Marvel heroes too.

    Non-cape books abound as well. The “Bone” series by Jeff Smith is a great one that you could read together. It has some scary bits and gets a bit complicated towards the middle part and ending, but it’s a fun place to start.

    You can’t go wrong with some of the classic comic strips. Both “Dennis the Menace” and “Peanuts” have been reprinted recently. They’re great. [EDIT TO ADD — There have also some been recent reprints of the Popeye strips/comics as well.]

    And don’t forget about the Disney comics. Those are still available in issues or collections. Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck, all great stuff.

    And there’s the Harvey comics — Richie Rich and Caspar and Hot Stuff. Always easy to find in the bargain bins of comic stores. A bit beat up, but great starter books for a kid.

    Best advice I can give you: Go to Tardy’s on Burton and Eastern. Despite outward appearances, it’s a great shop and the owners (Deb and Kirby) are very helpful. If you tell them what you’re interested in (or your boy’s interested in), they can make some good suggestions. And they’ll be happy to order you stuff as well. There might be stores in town with a better selection or locale, but Tardy’s is the best of the lot. I’ve been going there since I moved here 15 years ago.

  5. It amazes me now to think how little I read when I was a kid. Oh, I read, but I was one of those kids that didn’t read quite fast enough. “Fast enough” for whom? Good question. It’s disquieting to be PUT into a group of so-called “slow readers”. It doesn’t exactly engender a desire to read more. As an adult, I’m a voracious reader. I’m always wishing I had more time to read, will I ever be able to read EVERYTHING I want?

    You see, I’m still not an Evelyn Wood graduate.


  6. Peg,

    I hear ya. I think sometimes schools do more damage than good when it comes to reading, all with the best of intentions of course. The stigma of being “too slow” puts the focus in the wrong place, in my opinion. If a kid needs help with reading, that’s one issue that needs to be addressed. But not at the cost of the act itself. Better to read slowly than not at all.

    When I was a kid, I got reprimanded at school for reading “too much” — instead of PE or sports at recess, I just wanted to read. I would finish my classwork as fast as possible so I could get back to whatever book I had in my desk.

    Not once did a teacher treat this as a positive thing (although, to be fair, I was rushing my work a bit more than was good for me). But it seems strange to actively discourage a kid who wants to read so much.

    Someday, I’ll show them all…

    *shakes fist*

  7. It sounds like you had some outstanding, intelligent influences in the way your parents raised you. They must be wonderful people; I wish I could meet them! It sounds like your daughter is pretty wonderful too. How about your son? Is he as wonderful as your daughter?

    I started reading fast and long when I was six years old, now read about 1,200 words a minute…which is both a blessing and a curse.

    The blessing is that I get to read a lot of books. The curse is that they don’t last long enough and I have to go to the library every week to pick up three more books.

    I go to B & N every week and make a list of books I want to read. Then I go home, log on to my library website and reserve the books I want…and go in two days later and pick up whatever’s come in…what a great life!


  8. Since GFD (that’s right, he’s my dad) asked about sons and daughters…

    I’ve been thinking about this for a few days, noodling on more Books For People Who Don’t Read. It’s got me thinking about what really started this line of thought over the past few weeks.

    Like I said above, my son isn’t much of a reader and, to be honest, he never really has been. As much as that bothers me, I can’t really pinpoint why. His home life (whether at his mom’s house or at mine) is creatively as well as intellectually active — more so than most, I’d imagine.

    And I’m convinced that it isn’t video games or computers. I got started on both of those things around his age too and spent a fair amount of time in front of them . . . but it never dulled my enthusiasm for books and reading.

    Even though he’s not much of a reader, I still make an effort to point things out to him that I think he might like. All with mixed results.

    Recently, I pointed him towards Mark Millar’s Wanted, thinking that he might enjoy it. To my surprise, he’s been carrying it around and, near as I can tell, he’s actually reading it. (Although this might just be pre-Christmas brown-nosing on his part…)

    Which leads me back to the beginning. I think in some cases comics might be a great way to get people reading who ordinarily wouldn’t. In a lot of cases, comics might seem more accessible, less intimidating. The perception that they require a smaller investment of time also helps.

    It’s funny, because I’ve spent most of my life reading comics and, one way or another, trying to convince other people to give them a try. I’ve got a list of things I recommend to people who might ordinarily sniff over something that is still seen as a bit immature.

    But it never occurred to me that comics can also serve as a bridge to “real” books (at least, it didn’t occur to me consciously).

    Get someone hooked on The Sandman and it’s a pretty easy leap to any of Neil Gaiman’s novels. That’s just one example, but there’s plenty of others.

    (On a related note, my friend Tim Walker has a similar conversation starting on his blog. Tim’s a good egg so stop by and throw in your two cents, if you’re so inclined.)

    Right. Back to work, still noodling…

  9. The “I don’t read books” dismissal IS quite telling of our spoiled, jacked-in culture, though — people don’t know of or remember a time when such free, easy accessibility to books was unheard of. Not to mention the fact that a very small percentage of people until the last few centuries learned to read, let alone were ALLOWED to learn.

    To be fair, I have a very short attention span and it take serious dedication for me to finish a book. I own probably hundreds of books, but have read only a fraction. BUT — to your daughter’s new take on reading (“only for assignments”), I kind of understand that feeling. I used to write so much for recreation. But when I started doing it for money, I stopped writing for the love of it and only when an assignment came along. I try to balance that, but it’s hard.

  10. The historical context is an interesting one PJ, I hadn’t thought about that but I expect I’ll be thinking about it a lot now. You’re on to something there…

    Over on Tim’s blog (linked above) I talked a bit about my own recent problems with the mechanics of reading, and how I think it’s connected to being in utterly wired mode for most of the day.

    And I hear you on the pleasure vs. work side of things. I work in advertising and have spent years writing for clients. It’s taught me a lot (especially when it comes to discipline and research) but it can also dull the edge of my enthusiasm. I used to joke that I felt like I had two full time jobs but it’s not that funny anymore.

    You know the old saying about how writing is like sex: “First you do it for love…”

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