Summer has arrived, and many households have begun an annual, time-worn struggle: Parents trying to get kids to read. Despite (and perhaps because of) the vast numbers of lists available nowadays, summer is a time of often fierce reading wars, featuring lots of passive-aggressive behavior by both sides. The proliferation of screens hasn’t made things easier.
Of course, the reasons why children should read are many. Yet we’re faced with the fact that they probably read less nowadays. Reading provides a deep engagement with intellectual and imaginative challenges. Reading helps introduce complexity to children’s lives — if we let it. As Judith Schickedanz, professor at Boston U. and a consultant to PBS children’s programming, says in this boston.com article about seemingly troubling content in books, “It’s really important to keep in mind that the child from 4 to 8 is really old enough to have quite a bit of information about reality – that adults can die and that includes their parents – but what they don’t have is a sense of probability.’’ Books certainly can amaze and frighten children, she says, but parents can help navigate that terrain. Of course, reading also helps build vocabulary and improves one’s ability to write.
Reading, though, offers another, perhaps simpler, benefit for me. I have always wondered how human beings fill their days. What do people do during downtime? What do they do when faced with the massive, inescapableness of time? It’s something I, owner of an overactive (sometimes pathologically so) mind, have often wondered about: How do people fill the spaces in their lives? The inability to find calm and quiet may emerge as the main problem of this current incarnation of homo sapiens; as we evolve, perhaps those who find peace in silence will persevere.
Reading is a way out of loneliness. It is a way to be alone and satisfied, unpanicked, fulfilled. Reading is yours. It’s one of those satisfactions in life in that you need no one else for. My old high school wrestling coach, a man of great wisdom, when he wasn’t teaching us about crossfaces, could be far more philosophical; he would comment to us about the value of things like playing a musical instrument and reading, because those are things you can do on your own.
Sure, you can watch TV, and there is lots of great TV, but we need to escape noise. Among the many benefits of literacy is silence, and we can model that by embracing silence ourselves. As Neil Gaiman said (quoted in this blog ), “The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.”
I want reading for the sake of reading, not for list checking or test-driven book conquering (something tempting but troubling). As Alex Kalamaroff says in his The Millions essay, “When books are seen through the lens of test prep, they lose value. Texts are turned into word searches, where students’ singular goal is to find the correct answer. If reading is treated merely as a way to extract the necessary information — rather than as an activity worthy in and of itself — our literary culture will be greatly diminished… At some point, we have to ask how many students have already been turned off by today’s educational priorities? We have to wonder how many stories have already been lost.”
So I want my kids to read this summer. Our negotiations have been many. We agreed on a somewhat paltry goal (to me): They’ll read one book they pick and one book I pick. I handed my daughter Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Middle son got The Golden Compass. My little guy will be pushed to finish Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Yes, my boy’s choices are subversive, as I’m hoping to hook them into a series. You can judge on your own the subversiveness of handing a 14-year-old Woolf’s slim classic.
I may be a reading person by profession, but there’s something in a big-world way that is gratifying for me when I see my children with book in hand, quiet, immersed in their own imaginative space. I want those many benefits of reading, but more importantly, during those inevitable long nights that will make up one’s life, I want them to have a quiet place to turn. Sure, I want them to learn and build vocabulary, but in the end, I’m happy when I see them reading because I believe they are building a strategy to help themselves be happier adults.