I've written editorials around holidays before, but never on Mother's Day. Since I am not a parent, Mother's Day generally means remembering to send a card and/or flowers to my mother-in-law. Rarely do I reflect upon what it means to me "personally."
This year, however, as my mother-in-law is turning 90, we began a family discussion of her many contributions to her family over almost a century. One of the topics my husband raised was the ways in which she encouraged his love of history and archaeology. And that got me thinking about what may have been one of the best gifts my mother gave me: The love of reading.
In fact, my mother was the person who taught me how to read. I'm not sure why she decided that this shouldn't be left in the hands of mere schools, but when I was about five, she set in with flashcards and the first "Dick and Jane" book. When I'd mastered that, she was able to get two more "Dick and Jane" books from the school, and from there... well, from there, I don't suppose I ever looked back.
But my love of reading didn't come from flashcards. (In fact, I think I pretty much hated the flashcards!) It came from being a part of a family where books were considered not just a normal but an indispensable part of life. We had books everywhere, in every room -- including the bathroom, where, perhaps unwisely, my father actually installed a built-in bookshelf. This was stocked with a selection of lurid mysteries and even more lurid true-crime tales. I, of course, was forbidden to read such inappropriate material, and of course I obeyed... (Actually, I soon learned to go in clutching an "authorized" book, e.g., something like Dr. Dolittle, which would quickly be set aside as I perused the more intriguing fare on the shelves. And I wonder why I gravitate toward shows like Forensic Files today...)
Everyone in the family read, and read constantly. As a child, my greatest desire was to be initiated into this fellowship of readers. I knew what was in books, because my mother read to me. That was nice, but I wanted to be able to read to myself, to follow a tale at my own pace and not have to wait until someone was free to read the next chapter.
When I was four or so, I caused much amusement when I located a discarded mystery novel in a box of books in the attic. It caught my eye because it had something on the cover that I recognized: A rasp, a tool my father used often. (The book was Philip MacDonald's The Rasp, which I managed to locate and actually read some 40 years later...) This became "my" book, and I carried it with me everywhere. It was just the right size to fit in a bathrobe pocket, this being the day when pocket books really did fit into pockets. Carrying a book around like everyone else truly made me feel like one of the "big people."
The point was, my family didn't turn me into a reader by insisting that I read, or forcing books on me, or telling me what a good idea it was to read or how much I'd enjoy it or that it was "good for me." My family turned me into a reader by, simply, reading. I watched the avidness with which everyone around me devoured books, the joy they experienced in getting new books for Christmas and birthdays, the pleasure they obviously took in being able to settle down in a comfortable chair in the evening and read. (We had a weekend cabin with no TV, which may have helped...) This was clearly a major source of family fun, and I wanted to be able to enjoy it too.
Today, we are given endless, gloomy statistics and factoids about the decline of reading in children. We are also given endless explanations for why fewer and fewer children are interested in reading, with television and video games generally topping the list. Meanwhile, child "experts" of every ilk weigh in on what children ought to read, want to read, shouldn't read, won't read, and so forth. I can recall reading many "expert" articles in writing magazines declaring that "today's" children (which, admittedly, are yesterday's children now) were too "sophisticated" for fantasy stories. Today's children knew that magic wasn't real, so of course they couldn't possibly be interested in reading about something so "fanciful" -- give them stories of divorce and blended families and diversity and bullies and all those other issues that are so much more "relevant" than fairies and wizards. Then "Harry Potter" came along and... wow, suddenly children started reading again! (It must have been the dysfunctional families, diversity, and bullies that did the trick...)
Well, I've already pointed out that I don't have children, so I do not claim to be an expert of any sort. But I do remember being one (some say I still am), and I do have a theory. I suspect that one reason children's reading levels are declining is the same reason that all reading levels are declining: More and more adults consider themselves "too busy" to read. Even adults who love reading may feel that they don't have much time for it anymore. Our time is increasingly consumed by all the things we "must" do to keep up -- checking e-mail, surfing the web, catching up on the day's work during the evening, getting ready for the next day's work. I suspect that, for many parents, "reading" is a luxury that they feel they can no longer afford.
Perhaps it's time to take a step back and start asking, not why kids "don't read," but why kids do anything. One reason is to be like Mom and Dad. When I was four and carrying around The Rasp in my bathrobe pocket, that was my goal -- to be like everyone else in the family. When I was five, my goal was to be able to share in an activity that was clearly a major source of pleasure for everyone else. By the time I hit the teen rebellion and wanted to be nothing like Mom or Dad, it was too late; I simply showed my rebellion by choosing different books.
The gift my mother gave me wasn't simply teaching me how to read. A teacher would have done that, eventually. Her gift was teaching me why to read. It was demonstrating that this was perhaps the most wonderful way that one could spend one's time -- that I would love reading because reading was something to be loved.
Perhaps, if more parents recall this lesson from their own childhood, they'll find that reading time isn't an unaffordable luxury, but an indispensable necessity. And, quite possibly, one of the best gifts they can ever give.
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