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All You Need Is Love

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I’m at that stage in the writing of a book where it’s sort of a good thing there are computers, because if this was a paper manuscript I might burn it.   It’s not that I hate it so much, but that the whole thing seems unwieldy and recalcitrant.   Plot may not be what I read for, but novels need them anyway, and mystery novels need them to be accurate and noncontradictory.  So I’m spending a lot of time worrying about whether I changed the name of a jewelry store or gave two different times for the arrival of a set of stock certificates.

So I’m a little distracted, and my mind is jumping around a lot, and what I’m struck by this morning is this:  is it possible to instill a love of reading in students who do not come to the classroom with it already formed?

This isn’t as far from the thing about passive students–and their even more passive friends and relatives who never bother to try for any kind of degree–as it might seem, but for the moment I was to look at the “love of reading” and where it comes from, for all of us.  My passive students don’t have it, but then neither do my better students, and a fair number of people who went to college with me didn’t have it, either.  Their reading comprehension skills were better than those of the students I teach, but they read little or nothing they weren’t assigned to read.

Robert has several times commented, in comments and e-mail, that English departments have a window of opportunity from the 7th grade through Freshman English to instill a love of reading, and if they don’t manage it then the student will leave school without ever wanting to read at all.

I think the time frame is wrong.  What goes on from 7th grade to Freshman English is largely technical–it’s the time frame for teaching students how to read well and not just superficially.

But I think that if the student reaches the 7th grade without a passion for books, nothing anybody can do will ever give him one.

Think about your own personal experience.  I can remember mine.  I remember the first time anybody realized I could read–due to the circumstances s (my mother was pregnant), I know that I could not have been more than  two years and ten and a half months old, and the book was a Little Golden Book about a duckbilled platypus.  I even still have the book.

I remember the first time I found an author I wanted to read everything of–I was six, and I had to go to New Haven for the first of a series of appointments that would result in having my one crossed eye surgically corrected.  As far as I was concerned, this was just a day out in New Haven, which was great.  My mother must have been more nervous, because she promised me that she’d take me to Malley’s after the appointment and let me get something for myself as a treat.

It was one of the classic missed communications of my relationship with my mother.   She took me into Malley’s and showed me the toy department.  The toy department was next to the book department and the children’s books were right next to the toys.  I took one look at The Ghost of Blackwood Hall and simply had to have it.  My mother kept trying to talk me into a doll.

I really hated dolls.  My mother got me one for every Christmas until I was fifteen, but I never played with them.  There’s probably a story in there–a story about her life and the  Great Depression–but I don’t know it.

The Ghost of Blackwood Hall is a book (number 25, I think) in the Nancy  Drew mystery series, and over the next year and a half I read all of them.  Also most of the Dana Girls.  Also a fair number of the Cherry Ames nurse books.  When I ran out of those, I read whatever I  could find in the house, including big hunks of the Funk and Wagnells encyclopedia.  I ended up at Vassar because there was an entry on the good old F and W on the college, with a picture of girls in Bermuda shorts parking their bikes in front of what looked like a medieval castle.  That was Taylor Library.  Years later, I would decide it looked even better in person.

But look at the time frame here–I was a voracious reader before I was seven.  And I went on being a voracious reader.  My father had a policy that I could always have a book if I asked for it, and I had a library card on top of that, so the books kept coming and I kept reading them.  I went through all the Agatha Christies and Perry Masons in the house, and then I bullied the town librarian into letting me take things from the adult section.  Then I started on classics, although I didn’t know they were classics–David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Anna Kerenina, Crime and Punishment, Pride and Prejudice.  There was an entire section of the library exclusively for classics, and I went though them 

There was a seres called Best Plays–Best Plays of 1956, or whatever–and I went through those, too, reading William Inge, Eugene O’Neill, Tennesse Williams.  I think I got only about  tenth of the references, and I was so innocent about sex that  I managed to read Summer and Smoke and not catch a single allusion to homosexuality, but I read because I couldn’t stop reading, because I loved reading.

I don’t know what everybody else’s experience is, but I  think that in general a love of reading has to start early if it is going to start at all.  And I think that for most people, that love of reading arises outside the context of school.  I’m sure there are exceptions, people who come from families that do not have books and who therefore encounter them for the first time in a classroom, but in general I think school is a bad place to develop a passion.

The problem with school is that even the best teachers run into the solid wall that is human nature:  we almost always dislike doing what we are required to do.  In this, Mark Twain most definitely made more sense that most modern forms of child psyschology, which seem to perceive a distaste for doing assigned work as some kind of “learning disability.” 

For me, once I learned to read, something just clicked, and I couldn’t stop.  The fact that I was required to read things in school didn’t bother me, even though most of that stuff was boring (and on a reading comprehension level necessarily several grades below what I could do by then).

I have found, in my life, very few people who share this experience, but more than I expected existed when I was six.  I don’t think I have ever found anyone who developed such a love for reading as last as twelve years old. 

I think Matilda–both the Roald Dahl book and the (better) Danny DeVito movie–has it about right.  For some people, finding books is practically like finding heroin.  You start and you just can’t stop.  You read because you feel compelled to read, and only reaelly happy when you’re reading.

When I was in elementary school and high school I used to think the dividing line was intelligent. Smart people liked to read, and stupid people did not.  Later, I met lots of smart people who didn’t like to read, and even people who were good at reading who didn’t much like it.  If there is a way to instill a passion for reading into people, I don’t know what it is. 

Now you’ll all probably write in saying that your passion for reading arrived in your freshman year of high school at the hands of the most wonderful teacher in the world, and another one of the things I thought I knew about human nature will go right into the trash bin.

Written by janeh

January 24th, 2009 at 7:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

10 Responses to 'All You Need Is Love'

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  1. I can’t remember not being able to read. Both my parents read – my father almost exclusively non-fiction, and my mother almost exclusively fiction, which left me with a conviction that reading tastes were genetic and sex-linked, particularly since my two sisters were also both early and passionate readers of fiction, and my brother read fiction only under protest.

    We were read to from a very early age. I was told my father was interested in how children learned to read and taught me a little about how to do it – not formally; if I got bored, that was it for the lesson. I was reading well enough by the time I hit kindergarten that the teacher had me put into Grade 1. I was aged 4; local rules said you had to turn 5 by December 31, so I wasn’t quite 5 when I started school. I wasn’t much older when my parents had me do a kind of party trick – read out bits of Shakespeare to amaze and amuse their friends.

    I can’t remember when I had my first library card, but I must have been very young. We had an unusually good library for a small rural town, run by a woman I still remember with great fondness who strongly encouraged reading, whatever the rules said. Some authorities back then were really against comic books, series novels (eg Nancy Drew) and reading books from the ‘wrong’ section (there were three sections in one room – Children’s, Grade 8, and Adult). Mrs. W. thought you should read anything you wanted to read. We got on great! I always got books (as well as other things) for gifts, and my sister and I tended to dominate the local Scholastic Book Club orders. There were always books and magazines and newspapers around the house to read, too.

    The school’s reaction to my reading was mildly ambivalent. On the one hand, it had to be a Good Thing, right? On the other hand, they had me sitting there in Grade 2 or 3 making up the answers to my math exercise so that I could claim the priviledge granted to those who finished their work early, and read something. So for a while, I wasn’t allowed to read after I finished my work in hopes that I actually do the math (or whatever) properly. It didn’t take me long to realize that the teacher wouldn’t forbid me to look at a dictionary or the Bible. Every classroom had a Bible and a big dictionary.

    I had one teacher – I think it was in Grade 7 or 8 – who tried to insist that we not ‘read ahead’, because when students did that they got bored. By the time she announced that, I was most of the way through the ‘reader’ as we called it.

    So I’m another early starter, and so were my siblings, although my brother never developed the love of reading his sisters did. I know of enthusiastic readers who didn’t know how to read when they started school, but I think they were generally reading a good bit by elementary school (grades 4-6) at the latest.


    24 Jan 09 at 8:14 am

  2. I could be wrong about this. My working assumption was that a love of reading had to follow minimal technical proficiency, and you couldn’t count on that before the end of elementary school.

    Of course, I’m another of the “early reader” crowd, along with most of my close companions. A lttle later than Jane and cperkins, though: Mom and Dad left teaching to the professionals, so I didn’t learn to read until 1st Grade. By the summer following 1st Grade I was reading newspapers, and a cousin of mine–a social worker–had to explain to Mom and Dad that this was Not Normal.

    Other than that, it’s the familiar pattern, boys’ version: Tom Swift Jr, Hardy Boys, bunches of history and biography and–Third perhaps?–the “Mushroom Planet” books which were, not counting JOHNNY’S SPACE SHIP, my intro to SF.

    Yes, all earlier than 7th grade. By 7th Grade I was picking up adult Heinlein and Sutcliffe off the library shelves, and Tolkien can’t have been much later. My son’s pattern was very similar.

    But each of us had the skills. Looking back, in the early grades the classes were being taught reading in a technical sense–pronunciation, vocabulary and sentence structure. We were given “readers” in the sense of Scott, Forsman’s DICK AND JANE–short stories of increasing complexity written to develop reading skills. I remember TOM SAWYER ABROAD as a class treat in 5th–but read to us, not by us. I don’t remember 6th grade English at all–a very bad year–but 7th grade started us in on “real” books. I figure this is the stage at which a hypothetical “average student” can read pretty much anything. (Some of it will read differently later, but that can be true even of books read at ages 30 or 40.)

    Here was the chance to take kids whose parents didn’t take them to libraries and bookstores, and show them what was available.

    And here was the great opportunity wasted. Nothing was given me to read in those seven years that I would ever willingly read again. Everything might as well have had the pages overstamped “Not Worth the Trouble.” And of course, it was at this stage that the English teachers started in on the notion of Inferior Books–meaning those not assigned in class, and which might be interesting.

    The only exception was Shakespeare. Of course Shakespeare had murder, warfare, usurpation, witchcraft and forbidden love–much more like Heinlein or Edgar Rice Burroughs than SILAS MARNER or THE YEARLING. (Maybe in Literature you have to be dead 300 years before you’re allowed to tell a rattling good story?) But too many of my classmates, by the time they’d worked through Shakespeare’s vocabulary, were in no shape to appreciate the story. Maybe if they’d been shown good film versions, and then walked through the text? (Oh, and about ERB: check out a copy of PRINCESS OF MARS and check out the sentence length and vocabulary against the latest triumph of academic fiction.)

    Maybe the intention was to teach us to read “well.” In that case, worse texts might have served us better:

    1. Where does the author use coincidence to move his plot along?
    2. Where does the author cheat in order to make his political point? List three examples.
    3. Which of these characters resemble real people,and which are as phony as a three-dollar bill?

    Instead, I remember going through passages of THE YEARLING listing what the family had for dinner. All the charm of a railroad time table.

    Now that I think of it, this was the age at which my next younger brother–a much more average person–did start reading in a major way–Tarzan books, westerns and (later) “men’s adventure.” School was an obstacle to his reading as it was to mine.

    My father’s an interesting mix: bright, but not academic. He spent high school working and playing varsity baskeball and football with schoolwork at a minimum–something he’d have to make up in later life. “I never visited the library in school” he told me. “If I’d known it might be fun, it would have made a difference.”



    24 Jan 09 at 3:33 pm

  3. I didn’t enter school reading, I’m not sure why. I certainly knew all my letters, and my parents did read to us. But I still remember the day, quite clearly, in kindergarten class, where we sounded out S-E-E, and the teacher said “see….” and it was like a lightning bolt hit my head. I could READ. I could READ A WORD!!! From there, I can’t remember any stopping me from reading everything, until in grade 2 I was reading at an 8th grade level.

    My mother always read, trashy historical romance novels mostly, but she did read. So I grew up seeing one parent at least embrace reading as a constant activity. I discovered a full set of Nancy Drews up in the attic at my grandmother’s house when I was 7, and spending an entire summer up there reading them. I can still smell the knotty pine panelling.

    Then we went to the library…I must have been about 9 or so, and I still remember the first science fiction book I took out, and looking at all those shelves and shelves of books and realizing I could read ALL of them. Oh my. Sheer happiness. And I did. By middle school I had to look farther afield for new reading material, and I managed to plow through 5 or 6 books a week all through school.

    I would be so involved in reading that my mother could be yelling my name and I’d be able to completely block her out. For some reason she never believed I hadn’t really heard her.

    My sister, who never did well in school, also reads voraciously, although more along the lines of my Mom’s tastes.

    I think love of reading can’t really be taught in school. Unless you’ve got the example of parents or other adults modeling reading at home for enjoyment, it’s not something you pick up, except under extraordinary circumstances. Your life is more likely to be filled with sports, or tv/computer, or simply running amok.

    I do wonder what would have happened to me if I’d had a computer growing up. Perhaps like with my son…he does read fiction for enjoyment, but not compulsively like I used to.


    24 Jan 09 at 4:40 pm

  4. Lymaree, I’ve wondered the same thing – if I’d had a computer, would I have read as much? Because once I could read (~age 4) I was pretty much always reading. I read all the series that Jane listed, and all the ones about horses and dogs by men with three names, and once I got done with horses and dogs I read some historical fiction and that series by some guy with “Lloyd” in his name about a kid who was raised by peasants but was REALLY a prince, that kind of thing. Then I read Twain and Swiss Family Robinson and Dickens and it really never ends.

    But I don’t know very many people who read that much any more.


    24 Jan 09 at 6:34 pm

  5. I don’t think there ever were that many people who read as much as I and my sisters and most of the people here did. Even most people who enjoyed reading didn’t go at it like we did, grabbing every spare minute. That it was considered unusual is borne out by the number of people who commented on our reading habits – and still do, when I’m the only person in a waiting room or at a bus stop who automatically hauls out a book and starts reading.

    I don’t know what effect a computer would have had on my reading. I tend to think not that much. it would have replaced the encyclopedias, which I used more as a source of random titbits of information than as a source of information I was told to find. Computer games might have replaced TV shows. But I don’t see a computer replacing fiction.


    24 Jan 09 at 6:56 pm

  6. Hi, everybody. I’m a librarian & have to weigh in on this one. There have been a lot of studies done, and the universal conclusion is that the main predictor of whether a child will learn to love to read is if someone reads to them from the beginning. Jim Trelease, who’s an expert in this area, commented in an article: “In 1985, the U.S. Department of Education’s Commission on Reading examined more than 10,000 research projects on the subject. “The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading,” the commission concluded, “is reading aloud to children,” a practice which, the commission noted, “should continue throughout the grades.” (Trelease, Jim. “A love of reading: every time someone reads aloud to a child, it’s an advertisement for the joys of reading, the pleasures of the printed word. ” Scouting. 91.5 (Oct 2003): 34(5).) (You can tell I’m a librarian right there–I cite my sources!)

    I personally am renowned even among librarians for the amount of reading I do. Like Lymaree, I remember the exact moment I suddenly understood how this whole thing worked, and have been reading everything I can get my hands on ever since. Although most of what they give you in school is awfully dull, at least if you read a lot, you probably read fast & can get it over with quickly, & go on to more interesting books. I’m sorry for the kids who only read what’s assigned.

    And once you’re an adult & can read anything you want to–what a world opens up. I can’t imagine living the confined life a non-reader must live.

    I don’t know anyone who reads as much as I do, but I do meet a *lot* of people in the public library I work in–both staff & patrons–who read far more than than the doomsayers gloomily predict. And the amount we check out is rising every year, generally by 10% or more. We’re always scrambling to keep up. In the current recession, we’re getting more business than ever. I don’t think reading is going to disappear any time soon.

    Lee B

    24 Jan 09 at 10:13 pm

  7. Hah. One day recently I saw a mom pushing her 2 year old down the street in his stroller. But standing in the stroller’s bottom carry basket, inside the handle, was the tot’s 8 year old sister, reading a book. Somehow she got her mom to push her rather than making her walk and read…probably by lagging behind.

    When I saw her I felt like “Aha! There is my true heir!!”

    I used to read while eating, while in the bathroom (except when showering), while waiting anywhere AND while walking to and from school. It’s good to know the next generation *is* out there.


    24 Jan 09 at 10:33 pm

  8. Today’s burst had me wondering when it was that I first started to read. I was probably closer to 6 or 7 when the penny finally dropped, and I have memories of the class reading-out-loud torture sessions, ie when we were required to stand and read from the book du jour. This was always a trial for me because initially I was a very slow reader and the class used to get way ahead of me. Then, when it was my turn, I often found that I took an embarrassingly long time to find the place
    where the last reader left off. I also found that I sometimes transposed words or even read short words backwards.

    Years later, after dyslexia had been invented, I wondered whether this had been my problem and that those suffering from this alleged ailment might simply not have persisted beyond the first difficulties but simply gave up trying. Whatever, apart from essential school reading, by age 10 I was reading everything I could find, which in our house on the edge of the Outback, was pretty limited in scope. But it did include several years worth of unopened Saturday Evening Post magazines. These started my interest in all things American, and caused me to fall desperately in love with the Green Bay Packers – a love affair which continues to this day, through thick and thin.

    Much later still, when I was teaching in a native school in Papua New Guinea, I subscribed to the SEP again and used it as a teaching aid. For my brighter kids, it seemed to have a great motivational effect and my day was made on one occasion when I found my star sixth grader,
    who was so bright he made me struggle to keep up, chortling away while reading a William Saroyan story in one issue. He was laughing at
    precisely the same humour that had amused me. This was a kid – perhaps 11 years old – who by then had probably never been more than a few miles outside his village (about 120 miles south east of Port Moresby), and rarely heard grammatical English spoken outside school.

    So, it’s not a common skill, this instinctive or should I say intuitive ability to pick up a text and comprehend it.


    25 Jan 09 at 9:58 am

  9. That brought back another reading memory, Mique. In our basement, my parents kept two piles of old magazines they couldn’t bear to part with…about 10 years of National Geographics, and a two-foot pile of Playboys. I must have been about 9, so this was in 1964-65. I read my way through both of the piles (I don’t know WHAT my parents were thinking!! The dirty magazines were stacked directly behind the NGs, did they think I was blind?) finishing the Geographics first.

    I liked the jokes section in the PB’s best. And there were many fine fiction stories. The naked ladies were of pretty much the same interest to me as the naked native women in the Geographics. I grew up oddly unwarped by this experience.


    26 Jan 09 at 1:23 am

  10. I read piles of magazines, too. Not National Geographics – we had a subscription at home, so I read them as they came in. But my grandmother had piles of women’s magazines in the ‘cabin’ at the local lake, and in the evenings or if I was really bored I read and re-read all those old Good Housekeepings and Ladies’ Home Journals – Can This Marriage Be Saved? (which fascinated me, because at that point I had never heard of a marriage that ended in any way other than by the death of one of the partners) and all those personal advice articles. That was where I first discovered that polygamy existed in Modern America.


    26 Jan 09 at 6:52 am

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