My parents, my shelf

The other week, a discussion was going on Sean Kirst’s blog about parents and literacy. Literacy has been in the local news since Syracuse’s ProLiteracy International got a new president, David Harvey. (I’ve already linked to this great speech on Syracuse and literacy by Laurie Halse Anderson but am happy to do so again.)

Recently it’s been reported that American kids are reading less and less. My feeling about improving reading rates is that you can lead kids to books (Harry Potter et al), but that isn’t necessarily going to make them continue reading books into adulthood. I think researchers would probably agree that parental involvement is critical in instilling a love of reading… but I also think it has to go deeper than just accompanying kids to story hour at the library, or even reading to them aloud at bedtime. I think the parental library must be a critical part. That is to say, I believe that it’s being exposed to your parents’ books that seals the deal.

Reading is fundamental. But it’s also fundamentally weird. It’s bad enough that we seem to live in a culture these days where radical alone-time for kids (the time they need for reading) is discouraged in favor of collegiate resume-building. Even when I was growing up, “She’s always got her nose in a book” was not always a compliment; it was seen as slightly anti-social. Well, reading is a weird activity and there’s no way around it. No way (outside of childhood story hours) to make it communal. You may come together to discuss books in a circle, but nobody sits there reading them together. Reading is silent and secret by nature. It’s really the first potentially radical and independent and grownup activity a kid does. And I think there’s a critical phase in every young reader’s life where they put down their own childish books and investigate Mom’s and Dad’s books. (Or, ahem, magazines?) Without that moment — or if some other adult doesn’t hand them a book person-to-person — I don’t know if a young reader ever really becomes an adult reader.

My parents each had their own personal book collections — some of which was no doubt kept out of reach, but most of it was just sitting around freely available. No books were ever really suggested to me; I guess my parents just trusted me to take whatever plunge I wanted. There was no stage-managing. These books were full of things I didn’t understand. Some were inviting and others looked scary. Most of them I looked at, but a few of them I read or skimmed. Of the many books they had, only a tiny few made a lasting impression on me, or really opened up my world to new things. However, if they hadn’t had books lying around at all — if I hadn’t had anyone to model reading for me as an adult activity — I maybe wouldn’t value books as much as I do.

I don’t claim to have fully read or understood the books that belonged to my parents, although I did really love a few of them literally to pieces. It can be hard to communicate the impact of a book on a kid after so many years have passed, and they say a picture is worth a thousand words. So I took some of the actual books that belonged to my parents, which became part of my life (or at least, my consciousness), and photographed them as a small tribute. I have a new photoblog, and you can find the first short series of photos there, starting with just a few of my mother’s books. (Click “next” at the top to see the whole series.) I’ll continue with some of my father’s books, once I dig some more of them up.

4 thoughts on “My parents, my shelf

  1. sean

    great photos. the penciled-in notes are almost like ghosts.

    my son takes part in the citywide oratory every year, and i remember one girl – a terrific competitor who overcame great odds to win first place in her age group – who recalled how her mother told her, “reading takes courage.”

    i think she nailed it. i think reading a book is like painting a room or going on a long run or starting any long project that is intimidating at first. as the man said in ” … motorcycle maintenance,” you have to learn to love the journey as much as the destination, or the destination becomes too remote, too hard.

    that is what i fear with today’s kids. instead of being challenged to take journeys, they are seduced by a medley of beeping, whirring, moving, hypnotic electronic devices that fill the gap and make it easier to simply step back from the work. do all kids fall prey to that? of course not. but do many? oh, man.

    as always, though, the problem doesn’t start with the kids. it starts with us.

    sean

  2. Mrs.W

    I agree… mostly. I think reading can be done in group settings. In our house, we all sit around a room reading our individual books. Together, but in our own little bookish worlds. My brother and his wife do the same.

    I think doing that with your kids teaches them to entertain themselves–either with a book or another quiet activity while mom & dad are reading. Eventually they’ll gravitate towards books themselves.

  3. Ellen Post author

    Mrs. W, that could be a family culture difference.

    Sean, I must admit I was seduced by the whirring of the new digital camera that made those photos possible. :-)

    I do have a personal peeve (or at least eyebrow-raiser) about “kids today” and books: the way authors don’t seem to be able to tell a good and complete story in one book. Watership Down: One book. Today, it would probably have been dragged out over a 1500-page trilogy. It seems that trilogies and lengthy series are planned from the get-go. You hear about kids burning through 800 pages of Potter in 3 days and you wonder if they’re being set up as “book consumers” and not readers. Now there’s a place for that – ie comic books – but I used to linger over favorite books for a long time. Do they have time to return to and re-savor any of these books?

    Also, the Internet has made reading these popular books a different, pseudo-communal experience. Witness the final HP book where it must have been darn near impossible for a kid to escape spoilers. The real popularity test of the HP books will come if they endure for future generations of readers.

  4. Phil

    Ellen:
    I was struck by your comment that reading is the first radical, subversive thing that kids get to do in their lives, purely on their own. Brilliant.

    Harry Potter did do one thing, it got a real book in kids’ hands–a substantial hulk of paper with few illustrations. About as far from the blinking, whirring electronic gizmos as you can get. I too worry that it became more commercialized with movies etc. and less about reading. I just have to hope that a few kids began to discover libraries and books as a result.

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