Monday, February 25, 2013

Hard Thinking About Easy Reading, Part 3

When I addressed this subject earlier, I tackled the question, "Is reading any book of any kind good  enough?" I concluded that reading is a matter of life and death and that all books are not created equal. The  challenge to us as parents and teachers is strengthening this habit of reading and growing in our taste and appetite for literature of all kinds.

Interestingly, though reading is not a popular activity anymore, it is still considered a compliment to  acknowledge that someone is "well read." Some think well read refers to an avid or voracious reader, but of  course, one could constantly read drivel and be in about the same state as someone who reads nothing at all.  If you have read this series and want to become "well read," how to go about it, where to begin, is the question.

We begin with ourselves. As I don't consider myself to be particularly well read, though I love to read and  am passionately concerned with others developing that art, I have to acknowledge that there isn't one road to becoming a well read person, no special book list you can follow to get there. Certainly I don't hold any  magic secrets for becoming well read. In fact, as Tolstoy said, "True education is a process of repentance, where we admit that we have not learned all that we ought to learn yet." Therefore, we begin with humility, acknowledging our ignorance, and repent, change our habits and tastes book by book.

Desire to change doesn't often carry us terribly far, however. We have a couple of obstacles: first, reading is work. In an age of easy access to information and entertainment, work is not appealing. Let's be honest, the most challenging work involved in operating our phones, computers, and electronic toys requires a slight  move of the finger, click of a button. At the most, we have to allow time for our device to recharge for us, or  search the room for the remote control. I ask you, which is easier to convince a child to do: watch computer generated images, on a screen and read brief prompts, or keep track of multiple characters described in print, follow a plot, and invent all the pictures in his own mind? Who wants to work that hard? In addition, a book reader has to keep at it; like any skill, reading takes practice and perseverance to improve and master.
The second obstacle is time. I know we all have the same number of hours, but have you ever felt like 24 hours is truly only a few seconds long? We live at such a pace, pack our lives with so many people and  things and activities. While it may take five minutes or less to play a quick round on an electronic game, it can take five hours to read a good book. Most of us are doing many, many very good things with our time, but spending it reading a good book loses out because of the urgent tyranny of our daily round. Who really does have the time to read?

Therefore, we have to want to change, realize it takes work, and then find the time. If we determine to make  changes, our next decision is choosing what to read. Again, we begin with ourselves. To widen our reading experience is going to mean we have to read something different - a different author, a different genre, a different level of difficulty whether in language or content.

Emily says this is her most important job as a librarian: moving children into new territory with books. Some children are very difficult to convince that they will like something other than mysteries, or dog stories. I have had ten-year-olds very adamantly insist that they do not read fiction. It is a dilemma for us to face since in one respect, we are thankful there are still children who love to read, but it is unfortunate if they become entrenched in a rut at such an early age. Such narrow paths will not lead to well-educated, let alone well-balanced grown persons. Usually we try to find some common ground, a hook or connection in the type of literature they enjoy that will transfer to a new one. For example, perhaps the mystery was set in a certain country, we will offer a historical fiction book about a famous event in that country. And sometimes we simply challenge them to read a classic book completely outside the realm of their previous reading experience. Most often though, we find that children are simply a little put off by books written in a different style or, more commonly, in the language or customs of a former era.
Are we adults so very different? I have shared before about mothers bringing books back to us that were written a hundred years ago, stating that they are too hard to understand. Here we are again back to the problem of hard reading. Nothing worthwhile in life is achieved without deliberate effort. If we want our  children to read more, read well, then they need to be introduced to the joys found in tackling something unfamiliar. To read well and with discernment is to read widely, to read deeply. To do this requires reading more kinds of books than we ever knew existed before. To read these books is to be introduced to countless new people, new experiences, new feelings and new thoughts. The results will be a freshness in our life, energy from being stimulated to think about new ideas, and places, and times past. There is no way to duplicate this kind of learning and growing outside of books, and not just learning and growing intellectually, but when we enter into the conversations and stories and descriptions by people of all the ages, we become intimately acquainted not just with other people's lives and thoughts, but with ourselves. The reason reading makes a difference is that it makes us different.

I may not have a perfect reading list for you to begin with, since I have no idea what you are reading at the moment or where you need to expand, but will suggest that if you don't know where to begin at all, begin by reading the classics. Books become classics because they have been known and loved by people of all ages and walks of life. They stay popular for a reason: they have something to say to the readers of the day they were written, and continue to speak to readers of today. Books of today do not have this appeal. Still, you don't have to take my word for it. How about C.S.Lewis's thought on the subject of reading "old" books:

"We should read books from the past. Books from the future would be just as good - they're just a lot harder to get. ...We ought to enter into the conversations of the many centuries past so that we canbalance our own thinking."
Our age, like every one before it, needs balance. We need to think about the things that people used to think about, see the world the way they saw it, understand the fears and failures they faced. When we step into another time, another place, and see life through another's eyes, we gain wisdom, we find insight. Don't be daunted by the unfamiliar scenes and language, but let them invigorate you. We are not really so different than the Greeks or Romans, the Barbarians or the Crusaders. our mind craves to know something new, to think about something different, and our hearts thirst for the refreshing breezes of these new thoughts, thrive  on connecting with other hearts. So what's to keep you from beginning? There's only one way to start.

Just pick up a book thousands before you have enjoyed, and begin reading it. Work at it. Take the time. You will be changed.

For the joy of reading,



  1. Susan Macaulay said how she loved to reread her favorite books from childhood when she needed to be comforted. This is so, so important in childhood and as adults. She also said reading a few pages of her father's books ( Francis Schaeffer) , which are hard to read, will give you more ideas than reading through many books.

  2. Bonnie,

    The truth of these words is precisely why we and our children need beautiful, challenging, thought provoking books to read.