family & parenting

Should kids read books? Yes. Should they like it? Well…

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So all you hear about is how important it is for children to read books. But should they also love to read? And if they don’t?…

I’m not setting you up with one of those, “While most people believe X, a closer look reveals Y arguments.” No surprises here. Kids should read books. Reading is invaluable to their educational development. (Of course, if you tell them that, hammering that message home morning after morning over the Frosted Flakes, you may have the opposite effect from what you intended.)

We know books are chock full of learning. They are also a form of cultural capital: Being well-read can mean something in some circles..

I believe reading long texts can also become a practice, a lifestyle, and the development of that habit may even be more important than what you actually mine from a book fact-wise or gain from being among the literati. Seeing kids’ high-speed, digitally-enhanced lives, I realize the value of the slowed-down act of book reading, which provides a unique opportunity for engaging with the imaginative world of another person’s intellect. When people tell me they have never read more than a book or two, they think I’ll be shocked. But I’m more sad than aghast, because they are missing something great.

Engaging in a long, single-authored text is also important for helping us understand that experiences are framed by the viewer/storyteller. Experiences are not objective. I’m getting all amateury postmodern here, but this is an incredibly important thing to understand. One immediate benefit is you will be less suggestible to advertising and will thus impulse buy fewer dumb products.

We hear mixed messages about where our culture is going in terms of reading. Nicholas Carr has expressed lots of concern about how technology has affected our reading lives, as he does in this interview. Kent Williamson, of the National Council of Teachers of English, said in The Wall St. Journal that during the past decade, he has seen a narrowing of how reading is taught. “In many schools, especially those most impoverished, reading programs are not about building cognitive abilities or a love of reading. They are built around rote learning of language….”

Some good news is out there too. An October 2012 NPR piece and this April 2012 The Atlantic article showed screenagers might be reading more now than in a perhaps exaggerated literacy past.

Type A parents have hundreds of summer Web reading lists to choose from, but I do worry that in building long checklists, we discourage the habit and lifestyle: Reading=work. This summer, in my house, I tried to strike a balance. As usual, I wanted my kids to read this summer instead of playing with devices and looking at screens when they weren’t outside. Instead of my normal impulse for the checklist, I selected one book for each of them — and, yes, it was a good book, because I’m an English professor, for god’s sake. For my ninth-grade daughter, it was Pride and Prejudice. My seventh-grade middle son got Call of the Wild. I’m finishing up an out-loud read of The Hobbit with my little guy, the fourth grader, but I also handed him my copy of Hardy Boys No. 1, The Tower Treasure (a gift from my own parents via Santa Claus in 1974!).

Yes, I wanted to see what my daughter thought of Elizabeth Bennet. Yes, I thought it would be cool if she could say she read it going into high school. But I really wanted, in the frantic atmosphere of our summer household, for her to venture into a deep, quiet space, sharing it with a brilliant novelist, to see the world through the keen eyes of someone else. I hoped she would slow down — and like it.

We’ve had some good conversations. Alas, my daughter did not fall instantly in love with Austen’s novel. Still, even after incidents like her screeching “Yiiii Mr. Bennett” on our stairs (I wish I had the audio of that) after a dad-compelled long reading session, she talked with me about the shortcomings of Mr. Darcy. Early on in Call of the Wild my son realized, with great surprise, that the tale was from Buck’s point of view. Shortly after, I asked what he had learned, and he said, “Dogs have bad grammar.” My little guy has been contemplating The Hobbit‘s authorial intrusions — they are quite jarring, if you haven’t read it in a while: Who is really behind the tale?

Lizzy. Buck. Bilbo. Knowing them involves investigating a careful construction of someone’s mind. You’ll learn things, but I hope none more than the value of the journey itself. Reading has always been one of my pleasures, and I feel I owe it to my three to help them develop this life habit.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the writing center. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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7 Responses to “Should kids read books? Yes. Should they like it? Well…”

  1. Very interesting. My kids immediately noticed the authorial intrusions in both Tolkien and Lewis. They both loved them… makes you wonder how conscious both writers were of how kids were going to react to that. They both seemed very deliberate in doing it — Lewis more than Tolkien, in fact.

  2. The art of pondering and ruminating is being lost. But perhaps the important portion of being engaged in a long session of reading a well crafted story is what happens when you put it down. That is when the brain becomes engaged in sorting through and evaluating the story, the characters and the possibilities. You dream about it. You see the world differently.

    And each book in succession brings about new experiences and one builds upon another. I could not imagine my life to this point without books in it. Great piece.

  3. ” I selected one book for each of them — and, yes, it was a good book, because I’m an English professor, for god’s sake. ”

    Brilliant.

  4. YES! Children should read books! Another BRILLIANT article Scott!

    “What we become depends on what we read after all the professors have finished with us. The greatest university is a collection of books.”

    Thomas Carlyle

  5. “One immediate benefit is you will be less suggestible to advertising and will thus impulse buy fewer dumb products.”

    Silly, silly man.

    PS. Aside from the above sentence I do agree with your article. I love that my boys have grown up with books and continue to read even without (too much) prodding from me. It does certainly help develop deeper insights and considerations that their normal fast paced electronic world cannot.

  6. MOST TIMES when I ask my GrandBabies “What are you reading?”..I get an answer….It always makes me smile..great job..Scott

  7. Scott, Great stuff! I loved to read as a kid–yes, and long, single-author books. Treasure Island (with illustrations by N.C. Wyeth!), The Phantom Tollbooth, Kim, The Wind in the Willows…and of course, The Hobbit. The first academic paper I ever wrote, btw, was titled “Avuncular Narration in Tolkien’s _The Hobbit_” and I presented it at the 6th International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts…to an audience that consisted of the other panelists and the mother of one of them. Meanwhile, down the hall, Steven King read to a packed auditorium. I hate Steven King.

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