At the beginning of Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, the narrator, Scout, is in a panic because her first grade teacher has told her to immediately quit reading with her father at night. She can’t imagine her life without reading. “Until I feared I would lost it,” she says, “I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”
I understand that panic. I believe in breathing…I mean reading.
When I was very young my mother drove a little red Volkswagen equipped with neither car seats nor seat belts. To keep my sisters and me occupied, she perched us in the back seat and gave us books to look at. It mostly worked. At night and at naptime she read us Smoky the Cow Horse and The Jungle Books and The Wind in the Willows and lots of poetry by Vachel Lindsay and A.A. Milne. When I learned to read for myself, I devoured Nancy Drew books and those biographies of famous people in their youth. The summer I was twelve, reading went from something that was a part of my life to the central focus of it. It was then that I discovered the massive novel, The Once and Future King. As soon as I finished just the first part of it—what’s called “The Sword in the Stone”– I was sure that a big mistake had been made: my sweaty little 6th grade girls’ body really should have been rambling around in wooded English glades with Wart and Merlin, or Gawaine and the boys. It was a crime that I was here and they were there, but at least there was the book that connected us.
I read The Once and Future King every summer for 5 summers, until my sister took it poolside and destroyed it (I’m still mad about that),and for those 5 summers, I also consumed everything else I could find about the Arthurian legends. I tried everything to keep my mind in the time and the place where I thought it belonged—in merry olde England.
Since then I have moved to other places and times and books–Depression era crime, the cattle drives, the Russian Revolution, colonial Africa, crazy utopians in the nineteenth century. Right now I’m interested in arctic explorers. When I get interested in something, I depend on books to deepen my obsession—lots and lots of words about the times and places I am escaping to.
When I read I am transported. I forget about my sore foot, or what’s for dinner, or what I have to do tomorrow, and I enter the world of my book. It may be past or present or future, but it’s definitely there and not here, and that’s the point. I prefer to read history, because I like to be transported back. But science fiction—stuff set in the future in galaxies far, far away does the trick, too. So does poetry, which cuts to the heart of the words themselves. And travel literature, and mysteries, and thrillers. It all works; it takes you there. I know that this is an common obsession, but it’s very ordinary-ness makes it important. For lots of people, me included, reading allows you to lose yourself in a time and a place and a peer group of your choice.
Complete absorption–this is what I search for in a book. It doesn’t always happen but the possibility is always there. That’s what keeps me reading.
When I was shopping for a profession I went looking for something that could feed my habit, a job that could allow me to read, and talk about reading, and share the best books I’ve read with others. No surprise here—I am an English teacher—seventh grade, at the moment. As a reader and an English teacher, I am never more conflicted than when I have to peel a book out of the hands of a kid who really should be paying attention to me instead of stealthily peering at a book. This happens a lot, I am happy to say, and when it does I have been known to confiscate the book, at least for a night, to find out if it’s truly more compelling than my lesson. It always is.
We are told all the time about the limits we put on our children—space and time limits, usually. We schedule them up to their eyes in activities like piano lessons, club soccer, tutoring, art lessons and play groups. In that detailed ordering, the kids are missing out. Missing out on the personal discovery that comes when they don’t plan for it, on the serendipity of connecting with something unexpected. But we can’t seem to just leave them to their own devices–we are convinced that if we send them out of the house they’ll get murdered by maniacs. Of course, indoors has its own set of problems– the TV set, the video games, MySpace—so we do our best to limit that, too.
So what can a kid do to branch out, to explore, to reach? She, or he, can read. And kids do—they read to reach beyond themselves within the comfort zone of fiction. Middle School girls read books about high school girls and their problems with boys and eating disorders and popularity, topics that seem both familiar and unending to them, something they feel they must study up on. Boys read about inner city basketball and also vampires (a changing body is a scary thing, after all). They all, boys and girls alike, read about distant lands—in the future, in the past, in Middle Earth, at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. As they read they get outside themselves, a task we all should do to stay a part of the human community.
So I believe in giving people—adults and kids alike—the time and the space and the resources to read whatever they want, to find what absorbs them, what transports them, what is, to them, as precious as breathing.
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