12.08.2007

Why do you read?

I'm just catching up on the Sunday New York Times from two weeks ago, and I read this article ("A Good Mystery: Why We Read") from Week in Review.

Why am I reading the New York Times from two weeks ago? In my last apartment, we all split daily delivery of the New York Times, which came to our door (very cheaply--my New York City public school teacher roommate got the $15/month rate), and I managed to read parts of the Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday papers on most weeks. Now that I don't get it delivered, and only buy it when I really, actively, want to read it, I find that every other Sunday New York Times is about all I have time for. One week to read the magazine; another week to read the other sections that I'm most interested in. What's the difference? I spend more time commuting to and from work, I donated to the UJA-Federation and started getting the Jewish Week, which I read parts of most weeks, and I'm reading more fiction, I think. Of those three factors, the only one I'm really enjoying is reading more fiction. I really miss reading the Science Times and every other Sunday paper, but I almost never remember to buy the newspaper on Tuesday and I feel silly buying a new Sunday paper when I haven't even finished the last one. The obvious solution would be to read online, but I don't like reading entire sections of the paper online.

So, back to books, the topic of the aforelinked article. Why do some people become "enduring readers," as the article calls them? What made me become an enduring reader?

Apparently, although my parents are also big readers, that is not enough. I do think that, in my case, everyone reading on Shabbat evenings and afternoons made me want to read books. I distinctly remember the first book that I read on my own (Pat the Bunny, or perhaps the later Pat the Cat), and the context in which I read it: Everyone else is my family was reading, nobody wanted to play with me, and I wanted to be reading like they were. So I did. Huzzah! I wonder if, isolated from economic and educational status and other things that affect reading, people who observe Shabbat in the traditional way read more than people who don't. I'm fairly sure that people who observe Shabbat in the traditional way play a lot more board games than people who don't. I grew up playing board games (Candyland, Aggravation, Rack-O, Life, Monopoly) every Shabbat, and, even now, when spending Shabbat and holidays with my family, we often crack open a deck of cards or Rummikub. How many Americans do that?

Back to reading. I don't remember it taking very long for me to move from picture books to Cam Jansen, Encyclopedia Brown, Ramona Quimby, Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, books by Robert Newton Peck, Paula Danziger, Lois Lowry, and Judy Blume and many, many more). I also read "lesser" literature such as Sweet Valley Twins and The Babysitters' Club. (I think that's a fine thing. It didn't corrupt my brain. I still enjoy reading what most literary types consider "junk," and I often avoid reading what others consider "good literature." I do feel a little bit overly defensive about this, though.)

The article suggests that for some, one book read in childhood triggers a love of reading, but I don't think that was the case for me. I don't remember ever not loving reading. I always loved escaping into other worlds, real worlds not my own, through reading. I went through a phase, or maybe two separate phases, when all I wanted to read were biographies and auto-biographies. There was a whole wall in the children's section of the local public library devoted to a series of easy biographies for kids. Most of them were of people like George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Hellen Keller, George Washington Carver, and Martha Washington. I guess you could call them iconic Americans.

One thing that the article said struck a chord: "But what makes that one book a trigger for continuous reading? For some, it’s the discovery that a book’s character is like you, or thinks and feels like you."

I think part of what I always loved about reading was that I almost always identified, in some way, with the book's character. I'm not sure right now how I would have identified with George or Martha Washington, but I think that, to some degree, these children's biographies were written to promote identification between the reader and the subject. Perhaps part of the joy of reading is that it enables me to identify with a character who is wholly unlike me in every way. And yet, still, I get to inhabit her world for a little bit, feel her feelings, let her people become my people. All without leaving the comfort of my own home (or subway car, as the case may be)!

Yes, I think that's it. I think that also explains why I sometimes feel very sad when I finish a good book. It's like being booted out of a place that temporarily became my life. Television and movies don't do that to me in the same way.

Anyway, go and read the article. It's a good read!

3 comments:

alg's dad said...

It's interesting that you lump together reading, and playing games on Shabbat. I have a letter written in 1910 by my great-great-aunt Z (sister of my great-grandmother L whom your middle name is after) to my grandfather. This was the Russian intelligentsia side of the family. Z and her husband had just moved from Europe to a small town in Michigan, the only place in America where her husband, a chemical engineer, could find a job. It drove Z crazy that their lowbrow neighbors spent most of their free time playing cards, instead of having highbrow intellectual discussions, as she was used to. Nowadays, of course, those neighbors would be spending all their time watching TV, and it would only be the highbrows who play cards (and read) in their free time.

There was one book that got me hooked on reading, when I was in 2nd grade: Elmer and the Dragon, by Ruth Gannett. I also liked imaging myself as part of different worlds, but unlike you, I preferred them to be fantasy worlds, rather than real worlds. Though I also enjoyed realistic fiction when I was a child, e.g. Mark Twain, Arthur Ransome, and acquired more of a taste for it as I got older. I was somewhat disappointed that none of my children liked fantasy novels quite as much as I did, though MLG liked the Narnia books, and I recently learned that MFG read one of my favorite books, Eleanor Farjeon's The Fair of St. James, when she was 15 (the same age I first read it) and really liked it.

I agree that there is nothing wrong with reading junk when you're kid, especially if you're reading good books as well. At the same age that I was entranced by the Narnia books, I also really liked reading Superman comics, possibly for some of the same reasons, as someone once pointed out to me. I don't think I ever lost my taste for Superman comics, at least ones from that era, but I think it would be accurate to say that my taste for them stayed constant, while my taste for other kinds of literature grew a lot in comparison, and broadened to include mainstream novels, and biographies and autobiographies, which constitute much of my pleasure reading today. At the same as all this was going on, I read lots of science fact books, and my enjoyment of that has continued to grow with time, while expanding into other non-fiction categories like history.

And yes, watching TV and movies is not the same. I think it has to do with the fact that when you are reading, you are actively constructing scenes in your mind. Interestingly, that is even more true if you are reading something in a language that you don't know as well as English (though you have to know it enough to be able to follow the plot). I find that I enjoy reading Orson Scott Card's science fiction novels in Hebrew translation more than I enjoy reading them in English, perhaps because I have to fill in more things with my own imagination.

General Anna said...

I definitely also went through that phase where I read the entire biography section in the children's library! As a middle school teacher, I re-read some of those biographies, and realized that most of them (if it's the same series) spend about 5 out of 7 chapters discussing the famous American's childhood and only a couple of chapters on the person's adult accomplishments-- what he or she was famous for. Of course, often the description of the person's childhood foreshadowed his or her later interests, but the books definitely focus on portraying these famous adults as children and how their lives were shaped early on. What a brilliant idea, no? Although I do remember writing a report for 3rd grade social studies class on Harry Truman that was similarly slanted and having the teacher ask me to include more details of oh, say, his presidency and other unimportant parts of his life...

ALG said...

Hey, cool!

It sounds like it was the same, or a similar, series. Now that you mention it, most of each book was about the famous person's childhood. The longer ago the famous person lived, the more myth there probably was in that accounting. Still, it was a good technique. When I was in third grade, I don't know if I would have wanted to read so much about George Washington's war campaigns.