Reading IS Fundamental

Last night, I sat next to my daughter in her room, she reading a Muppet book, and me reading Ashenden. Truth be told, I wasn’t getting a lot of reading done: every other minute, she asked me to help her make sense of a new word, so we would sound it out together, and then she would move on, and I would read another sentence until her next question. But at some point in this episode, much like Trixie, I realized something.

This was an extremely unusual scene.

The reading itself is not unusual. My daughter loves books and has from an early age; she’s the kind of kid who is quite likely to grow up to be a voracious reader. She has two shelves of books in her room, and another shelf of her own in the living room, and while she’s too young to articulate it this way, I think she takes pride in the books’ presence and what they offer: the opportunity to grab one and read it, no matter how familiar, and enjoy it all the same. I love books too, both the reading of them and the collecting of them, and have for as long as I can remember. I grew up surrounded by books, inherited libraries from people, and knew they were the one thing my father would always buy upon request. Books were and are essential to me. (The shift to the ebook is vexing, and very much a separate subject. But beyond the philosophical issues they raise is a simple, practical one: it feels not quite as authentic to catalog them when their very presence is so ethereal.)

So what was unusual about this scene? I realized that while I read constantly, I couldn’t remember the last time my daughter actually saw me reading a book, an actual book–and that saddened me quite a bit.

I am fairly sure she knows that I read books; our house is filled with them, and there’s a whole shelf and stack next to my side of the bed. She’s a smart girl, and my guess is that without ever thinking about it, she assumes I read those books just as she reads hers.

Yet that assumption isn’t the same thing is the literal, in-front-of-your-eyes knowledge of seeing your parents reading. It just can’t be. In an all-digital, iEverything age, the shared experiences of families takes a different form, and this whole thing gave me one more reason to feel slightly sad about its seeming inescapability. When I was young, I saw my parents reading all the time. Sure, they did other things too, but on a summer weekend afternoon, my dad was often inseparable from a book, or from one issue out of a stack of New Yorkers or New York Review of Books that he was trying to catch up on. I understood implicitly that this was an activity central to his life. I want my daughter to be able to say the same about me. Likewise, I want her to know the shared joy that comes from reading together–reading separate things, together, in the same place, whether it’s on a beach in summer or around a fireplace in winter, or just on a random evening at home.

With all these digital devices, her experience is different–as is mine, of course. I read, often, but holding my phone or my iPad I could just as easily be playing a game; there’s no book spine to give it away. Likewise, I spend time with these devices writing (as I am now, drafting on my iPad, editing on my laptop), and while she can discover these blogs when she’s older and look back with some understanding of what I might have been doing while typing away … I could just as easily have been sending a text message or an email or something else equally fleeting.

In theory, the fix for this should be easy: read more–more books, especially–around my daughter. This will likely be just as important for my younger son, who likes books but who could probably do with more evident modeling of the Life of a Reader. Talking more about books would help, too, to make evident the connection between their physical presence and our digestion of them. I love being a writer, and that’s an identity I would be happy to have my daughter understand–but as a writer, few things are as important as good readers. And as a reader, I want her to have the best shot I can provide at staying engaged with books for the rest of her life.

One Comment to “Reading IS Fundamental”

  1. The New York Times ran a piece by Jenna Wortham on a related issue: “Digital Diary: A Kindle Disconnect?”: http://nyti.ms/v7U1cO Also worth a read.

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