virtual children by Scott Warnock

Reading for the good life

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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 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.

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 University Writing Program. 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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5 Responses to “Reading for the good life”

  1. Judging by the amount of comments you received, the other two people that read your column must be reading something else.
    And as for a “quiet place” to read – I assume the kids must head outdoors to find that?
    Enjoy the summer.

  2. To start I must admit that I am an avid reader. I also must admit that, I am often disappointed to hear how many people don’t read. When asked why they don’t, the most common reason provided is a lack of time. When asked what they do with their time, the answer is often nothing. This phenomena could easily be attributed, at times, to the affluence of our society. We have so many varied outlets now for instant distraction/gratification that many people rarely slow down long enough to truly enjoy anything in a meaningful way. Yes I realize I am on a tangent here.

    Getting back to the topic of reading, I feel it is a great activity to gain internal focus and can have a calming affect on a person. It requires a deal of attention to read something and understand the content. In short, you can’t be stressed out about something else when you are focused on the book. You often enter a temporary stasis where it is simply you and the book. Reading can stretch the mind in new ways regardless of the content. You invariably get to know the characters in more profound ways that can never be achieved in a movie.

    In closing, I agree with the comments of the pathological writer. Reading is good and its benefits fostered.

  3. “Among the many benefits of literacy is silence”. Thank you for that, Scott. I don’t know about my kids, but you’ve convinced me to read more this summer!

  4. Great subject and never unworthy of emphasis and fresh engagement. In 2nd Grade in 1975 in Virginia, I wandered into a textbook alcove during Summer Activities when I got bored with gluing macaroni on paper (or whatever it was we were doing to release our mothers from summer torment at the hands of bored children at home). I found a 5th grade textbook on The History of Virginia and I proceeded to lay on the floor for about 3 hours and read that book from front to back until we were sent home. Why it appealed to me I cannot say, but I can recall how the stories and pictures fascinated me 40 years later.

    When the the aide who was running the program found me, she did me the greatest favor of my young life. Instead of berating me or chastising me for disappearing, she said that I was the quietest student in class and said she was impressed that I had been reading a book for children older than me.

    She’ll never know that her words would encourage and inspire me to continue to reach higher in my consumption of reading material. It goes to show how our words can have such lasting impact across time and the psyches of people.

    I would encourage any parent to let their children run free (figuratively and quietly) through a library and let them choose a good quantity of reading material. Then I would winnow their choices down to about 5 and then introduce something else a little above their range and ask them to try it out. Libraries are wonderful in that you can check out multiples of books at a time and then if you get a few chapters into one and can’t continue, you can always return that book. I believe you are better for the experience of just trying out even a little bit of any literary effort.

    Keep it up Scott. A good book is a priceless gift that we parents can bestow upon our children (thankfully) for little cost.

  5. Sorry to come so late to the discussion, Scott … but thank you for a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. If it also provokes action, getting more of us to read and coax our kids to read … so much the better.

    Reading … and reading-to. Some of my favorite memories of parenting will include reading aloud to my boys, taking them through the “Hank the Cowdog” series … very dramatic readings with voices for each of the major characters. Enjoyment of Ericson’s series would continue in later years … but with them reading quietly to-and-for themselves.

    I agree 101% with azchurch … “Keep it up, Scott!”

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