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November 25, 2007

Our Weekly Reader

In light of the latest National Endowment for the Arts' study about Americans' declining reading habits, The New York Times ran a story Sunday about the mystery of why people read. It featured the predictable anecdotes about how a particular book encountered while young and ignorant turned on such authors as Sherman Alexie and Junot Diaz. Although interesting in that regard, the Mokoto Rich story shed little light on the process of becoming a regular reader -- only confirming the feeling of helplessness or frustration the NEA data imparts.

There is always going to be something serendipitous about the link-up between the right book and the person who will appreciate it. What should be asked is not how young readers get started but how do they stay readers, how do they become habitual readers? This, after all, is the focus of the NEA study: A decline in "recreational reading" reportedly has led to a decline in reading and writing skills.

Yet -- pleasant surprise -- we actually know a few things about how the reading habit starts. And how it might be encouraged.

I wish I could remember the book I read that mentioned this -- and if this rings any bells for readers, please let me know. But this is how the process works: A parent or teacher may suggest a book that lights up a young reader. Or the would-be bibliophile may well pull it off a shelf on his own. This will inevitably lead him or her to seek to replicate the experience, to find other books that deliver whatever thrills or fantasies the first one supplied.

But this exploration will eventually die out unless the young reader encounters someone else roughly his own age who shares the same enthusiasm. In short, no matter how kindly or inspiring a teacher or parent might be, no matter how well-funded the reading program is, a kid has to find a kid or kids like herself to compare notes, swap secrets, share the excitement.

A book creates a little world joining author to reader, but that world is fragile and deeply individual (it's why my mental image of Bertie Wooster is slightly different from your image of him and why all the movie images are disappointing in some way). That fragile bookish world, however, can gain strength if it's confirmed by others. "You like Jim Shepard's stories, too?" we say when we encounter another devotee. The isolating experience of reading now becomes a way of connecting to others, even if only silently, through the words on the page.

So if schoolteachers or librarians want to spark young readers and keep that spark going, then supplying appropriate books, accessible, exciting books is just the start (although given the stupidities of No Child Left Behind, many teachers can't even do that -- the tests don't test for novels being read). What is also needed are fan clubs, reading groups. Or just have students tell their classmates about their favorite book, their personal discoveries. It's like activating a word-of-mouth campaign. And talking about books, comparing and evaluating them, is almost as much fun as reading them.

Oh. Wait. Scratch that last part. Jeezus. That's how critics start.

Posted by jweeks at November 25, 2007 12:19 PM

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COMMENTS

While I don't wish to denounce the aims of this article, I do think you under play the value of individual reading. I grew up in a house where no one talked about books and with friends who only read what was assigned and if it hadn't been for the encouragement of a few elder figures in my life, I might have been the same. Fortunately my parents had friends who were always willing to lend me books to read (they all seemed to be amused by my voracity, but I digress). My point is that while teachers should encourage all students to read and read well, if they find one or two who seem to be more invested than the others they should by all means encourage them

Posted by: MMike at November 25, 2007 3:34 PM

I read a lot of books/authors that none of my friends is particularly interested in when I was young. I was just interested in the books. Not to say that a critical mass of such individuals exists, or that the factor you cite isn't extraordinarily helpful to readers' development, but you may be overstating the case.

One place where that sharing of an interest is supposed to happen (theoretically, anyway) is in the classroom, and it can, at least if the book is not taught in a deadeningly dull manner. But mostly it doesn't.

Am I the only reader out there who's never felt the urge to join a book group?

Posted by: Lindemann at November 26, 2007 8:51 AM

I got hooked on reading when I was a kid in New Orleans. I used to stay in the library all day, just picking whatever title caught my eye. Then a librarian gave me The Confederacy of Dunces and then Faulkner and then just a list and I've never stopped reading - literature of all genres. So I became a writer and published my book, The Beatitudes, Book I in The New Orleans Trilogy, and am giving all of the royalties directly to the New Orleans Library Foundation to help rebuild the public libraries. Great, you say? Well, in "marketing" the book - I even have a campaign The Beatitudes Network-Rebuilding the Public Libraries of New Orleans and a blog www.beatitudesinneworleans.blogspot.com - for the three months I have pushed to rebuild the public libraries of NOLA, people buying the book via amazon, at art and book fairs, on MySpace, but the hardest sector of the public, the one that has ignored me the most (and yes I have the full cooperation of NOLA Library Foundation, using their 501c non-profit status with the published) is The Public Librarians. Yes, that just breaks my heart. What has happened to you, librarians? You who are supposed to instill reading in the young, indeed all of us? Your libraries have become places for videos and computers. Yes, I know. Budgets are cut. But when someone tries to help, why do you ignore them?
Lyn LeJeune
The Beatitudes Network at www.beatitudesinneworleans.blogspot.com

Posted by: Lyn LeJeune at November 26, 2007 9:37 AM

I don't mean to belittle the efforts of teachers or librarians. My mother was a teacher, I've taught, my wife teaches. And I owe a debt of gratitude to my sophomore English teacher; I was a diehard reader alreaady when I took his class, but he showed me what reading literature could really mean beyond just enjoying the story.

But I don't think I'm overstating the case for a "readers' solidarity" as a significant factor in habituating young people to read. First, the inspiring teacher or parent or older sibling, as I tried to indicate, is often the exciting, necessary first step.

But he or she is often not a sufficient step.

The study, which I still can't remember, blast it, found that a sizable portion of adults, when asked, could recall loving a particular book when they were young, could recall a degree of excitement and discovery in reading. But when asked about their current reading habits, they confessed they rarely read at all.

So what happened? One can't cite the usual suspects -- adult pressures, full-time jobs, parenting demands -- because these same factors do not prevent enthusiastic readers from grabbing books. Something deterred these would-be readers before they became adults.

I think that in hindsight many of us recall vividly the sense of discovery, the enlightenment that a teacher or older relative gave us, because this opened up a new world. And that moment tends to overshadow the more ordinary process of reader exchange that followed, that cemented our relationship to books.

For years, I've told people about going to our local branch library every few weeks by myself and basically reading my way through every book there that was of absolutely any interest to a 10-year-old.

What I didn't recall -- until I read this study -- was the fact that all of my siblings and I read. So we were actually sharing all the time, comparing which books we liked, steering each other away from books we didn't. We even pooled our money to subscribe to 7 different comic books.

It's not the eye-opening flash that makes a regular reader; it's the dailyness of it, the sense that it's a bedrock habit, part of who we are. And that doesn't require a book club, Lindemann. Just one other person when you were younger. Today, my siblings and I probably couldn't agree on almost any book we'd all like to read. We'd make a lousy book club.

And the fact that you're posting on book/daddy would indicate you're not completely self-isolated from other readers.

Posted by: book/daddy at November 26, 2007 11:01 AM



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