One of the truths I stress in my college Freshman Composition classes is that good readers are made, not born. The ability to read well, to learn from and take joy in the printed word, is not some gift a benevolent fairy bestows on us while we're in our cradle; rather, it is a skill which we develop with time and practice.
Naturally, some of my students wonder how I became a reader, what combination of factors helped me to develop the skill. I have to acknowledge that it wasn't a simple, short jump from here to there, and not all (or even most) of the credit goes to me. I did receive one important blessing at my birth: reading parents. Most of the time, reading parents will raise new readers, by example more than by pressure. As my infant awareness sharpened, I saw that my parents often buried their noses in books, and that well-stocked bookshelves lined the walls of our home. So I grew up thinking of reading as a basic, normal activity -- just something people did. It never occurred to me that some people didn't read, until I would visit friends' houses and wonder where all the books were. Though I would try to have a good time, I couldn't wait to get back home where things were normal.
In my younger days I never described myself as a reader; reading was "just something I did." I preferred other activities, such as acting out wild, elaborate melodramas with my "Barbie action figures," but I read anyway, because not reading wasn't normal. As Scout Finch puts it in To Kill a Mockingbird, "One does not love breathing." As it happens, To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the first books I took active pleasure in reading, one of several books I read during my middle-school years because I had seen the movie version, loved it, and wanted to know more. I discovered that the books could take me deeper into stories that already intrigued me. I now realize I may have cheated myself a little, because I did not come to these books unspoiled; the images and voices from the movies were already imprinted on my mind. I can't help wondering what my Atticus Finch might have looked like, if I had not seen Gregory Peck first.
Around this time, my parents, running out of patience with my "Barbie action figures," started to bring pressure to bear, to get me to read more. From this I learned another important lesson -- to listen to Mom and Dad because they knew what they were talking about. Mom recommended Jane Eyre to me, and I loved it. Dad pointed me toward an abridged (hey, I was only in the eighth grade) edition of Les Miserables, and I loved it. I never knew my parents to steer me wrong, and soon I was asking them to recommend authors as well as books. Mom led me into historical fiction by way of Taylor Caldwell and Anya Seton, while Dad was a guide through Greek mythology. By the end of high school, I was a full-fledged reader, and I spent my college years gobbling up Charles Dickens and getting to know J. R. R. Tolkien.
So I admit I had a lot of help becoming a reader. I adopted reading in much the same way we adopt many of our parents' values, out of trust in their wisdom. But at a certain point, as we put those values to the test, they cease to be our parents' values and become our own. My reading preferences today are very different from Mom's or Dad's -- though occasionally I may still take a recommendation from them.
But what about those children who do not grow up with reading parents? Next time, The Itch to Read Part 3: Advice for the Non-Reader.