Don’t get me wrong: my mother read to me when I was a kid. As did my grandmother. As did my father. As I’m sure as did some other people, too.
But while it is true that I had adults reading to me, the reality is that from the time that I could read (and, in fact, even before I could read), I was the master of my destiny when it came to most of the books that were on my reading agenda. (My mother tells a story about me throwing a massive tantrum in the public library when I was 4 or 5 – and I couldn’t read then, as far as I recall – because I *refused* to believe that there was a three-book – or whatever it was – limit on the number of books I could check out because I was not yet 7 or whatever the cut-off age was. And apparently I tried to convince the librarian that no, really, I *needed* more books to get through the week! NEEDED THEM!!!!! In spite of my impassioned and well-reasoned pleas, apparently that meanie librarian did not relent, and I was devastated.)
And so when I think about reading for fun, for pleasure, part of that for me is about book selection. (Which is exactly why I think that book clubs take all of the fun out of reading. Why in god’s name would I want to let some dummy pick the next book I read? I am a lady with a reading agenda of my own, thanks.) It’s about going where the winds take me. It’s about picking up a book on a whim and seeing where it takes me. (I am a person who goes to the library and scans the shelves to see what jumps out at me. I am a person who goes to a used bookstore with a vague idea, but who will, again, buy the books that “speak” to me, regardless of whether they were what I’d intended or hoped to buy.) And it’s also, at least to some extent, about having total freedom. I am not a person who typically reads books based on reviews (not even when I’m wearing my professor hat), and I’m not one to rely on other people’s recommendations for books to read (though sometimes I do end up reading books people have recommended to me). It is the case that people have even given me books to read, and I still don’t read them – or I don’t read them until years later. It is also the case that I have bought books that I “should” read, and there they sit, collecting dust on my shelf, until which time as I am moved to read them.
Now, part of this attitude to reading that I have is that none of those people who read to me really had much of a clue about or investment in what a kid “should” be reading at any given point in time. And nobody they knew had much of a clue about that either. So, for example, I never read “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” until I had a Ph.D. At the same time, I read a fair number of “the classics” (Jane Eyre, Huck Finn, Gulliver’s Travels, Little Women, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and others) before I was in high school. I never read the Sweet Valley High books as an adolescent, even though those were the norm for girls my age, but I was familiar with the entire Judith Krantz oeuvre before I was 16. (I read I’ll Take Manhattan – my first Krantz – at age freaking twelve!!!! Really, somebody should have paid better attention to what I was doing when my nose was buried in a book. The most my mother ever said was that I should be *doing something* instead of reading – go play! clean your room! go outside! But it wasn’t like she was directing me to appropriate reading material – in fact, most of the time she was just directing me not to read. Which made reading transgressive. And, of course, what is more fun than transgression?)
In the past 9 months or so, I have read the following, that I recall off the top of my head, which were not on a syllabus of mine:
The Marriage Plot – Eugenides
A series, The Masters of the Shadowlands – by Cherise Sinclair (smut)
The Memoirs of a Survivor – Doris Lessing
The Secret Diary of a Call Girl – anonymous (also smut, though smart smut)
The Shadows of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Juliet, Naked – Nick Hornby
Last Chance Saloon – Marian Keyes
And I’m in the middle of:
The Autograph Man – Zadie Smith
Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath – Paul Alexander
What I hope you notice about this list, though I fear I’m leaving some stuff off, is that there isn’t some agenda that dictates pleasure-reading for me. It’s mostly fiction, but I do have a penchant for biography every now and again. While some of it is “worthwhile” reading, I am strongly attracted to crappy smut. But I never read something outside of “work” reading because I think it’s going to make me a better person. (Though, to be fair, a few of those selections do actually do double-duty as work-related, but the point is, I didn’t read them because I had to read them right then.) One book takes me to another book and then to another. It’s also worth noting that I don’t tend to read any of this sort of stuff as “bedtime story” reading. I tend, instead, to re-read for that purpose (because otherwise I end up staying up all night to find out what happens next), which means that I am currently nearing the end of my umpteenth go-around with the Harry Potter series.
But anyway, what is my point in this post? My point is this: For a good long while now, I have been feeling sad for children of people I know, because the people I know introduce their children to books that they should have the opportunity to discover on their own. There is, for example, something really and truly sad to me about a kid having Harry Potter read to them, at five years old, as opposed to sneaking to read it under the covers when they are supposed to be asleep when they are, like, nine. When I was 6 or 7, my favorite book was Snowbound with Betsy, not because it was the best book in the world, or because my mom read it to me. It was my favorite because I picked it, and because I somehow procured a flashlight so as to read after my mom had read what was supposed to be my bedtime story. Joy in reading is about the freedom to roam. You might like a book that you’re assigned, but the fact of the matter is that liking a book you’re assigned is radically different from loving a book that you discovered.
Now, on the one hand I don’t blame my parent-friends. They want to read stuff to their kids that they themselves enjoy. They don’t want to read something like this for like 7 years running (which is what I insisted on for bedtime reading for, seriously, that long). And also, they want to give their kids a certain kind of cultural capital, and they also want to do what’s best for their kids, in terms of challenging them.
But. On the other hand. If I value anything about reading, I value the ways in which it allows us to explore, the ways in which it allows us to find ourselvesthrough that exploration. And you know what? If your mom or dad is reading it to you, or shoving it into your hands, you’re not exploring. And the only self you might find is the self that they want you to be. Maybe better than reading Harry Potter to your kids at age five is to let them find Harry Potter on their own. Maybe better than asking your friends on Facebook for book recommendations for your three year old who “wants more complicated stories” is to let your kid find their own more complicated stories.
Again, I had loving parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles who read to me. But more than anything I was left to my own readerly devices. And that gave me a mind of my own. And I wasn’t deprived of the joy of discovery. And that matters, if what you want is a kid who loves to read.