Re-Literacy

11/21/2010 By Shawn Burns

We accompanied Adrian on a visit to his pediatrician for his 18 month checkup. Prior to seeing the doctor we were instructed to answer some questions provided by the medical group regarding Adrian’s development. Some questions regarded Adrian’s own progress, and others inquired into our involvement, as his parents, in his cognitive and physical maturation.

One question on one of the many sheets of paper asked “Do you read to your child?” I answered in the negative. I don’t read to him. He points out pictures in books and I tell him what the pictures depict. But I don’t read words aloud or indicate which letters form the sounds I make.

In eighteen states and four hundred suburban developments in the Union, this is a crime. Literacy, early literacy, is a sacred cow; we are all supposed to feel guilty about any lack of enthusiasm we show toward indoctrinating our kids into the cult of typographical media. We are supposed to make aloud reading a habit, which we believe is causally, and necessarily, related to our children being able to become Supreme Court Justices or CEOs someday. I think steaks are delicious, so no cows are sacred.

I remember learning to read when I was four or five years old. I don’t remember anyone reading stories to me. I do remember being allowed to stay up just a little longer if I was going to be reading in bed. I remember my mother reading all the time, but not to me. Nevertheless, I developed into an appetitive reader, taking on Jean M. Auel’s The Mammoth Hunters by nine and Tolkien by ten and spending most of the money I ever earned in high school on books. (Editor’s Note: I’m not quite sure what my mother was thinking when she let me read The Mammoth Hunters, which as I recall now was basically romance-porn with cavemen. Maybe she just thought I would never actually read it because it was hundreds of pages long. Or maybe she thought I wouldn’t understand it. She was wrong. However, since some of my earliest exposure to sex came in the form of highly stylized and romantic interactions (and also multi-racial ones) instead of San Fernando Valley-produced videos of bottle-blondes performing with anatomical outliers, I might actually be a better person because of it. But I don’t recommend this as a parenting philosophy.)

I was also a television and video game addict. I think the normative contrasts in the way we tend to describe these pursuits is interesting: we have voracious readers, who satisfy their hunger, and that metaphor is neutral, or even positive, since we can all appreciate having a hunger sated and a body nourished. Gamers and television consumers are addicts, which we identify with unwillingness or uncontrollable desires without positive payoffs. I don’t share this normative position. I don’t have a view of childhood television consumption that makes me shy away from having it on when the kids are home; I don’t keep them away from video games at arcades or at home. I don’t believe in brain rot.

But I still feel guilty in all the suburbanly appropriate ways for every minute the television is on or for every book that is stepped on rather than read. I feel the way I’m supposed to feel, but not the way I should feel.

The way I should feel is happy that Erin has gone from being interested in pictures in books, to being interested in stories surrounding those pictures, to being interested in the words that tell the stories in the pictures, almost entirely on her own. She leads the way toward her own literacy, and I’m not forcing it on her to give her a competitive advantage in pre-school. I am a willing accomplice, but not a cult leader.

For the last six years my reading of books that are not written by famous philosophers or philosophers trying to get famous has been very minimal. And because of the effort required to get into and out of those books, and the obligations I have to read them in order to accomplish certain goals, I’ve had an aversion to reading for pleasure. I’ve read a lot of blog posts and articles in the last few years, but for the past year I can point to exactly one book that I’ve read that wasn’t a philosophy book, and it was written by a blogger. I stare at the spines of my personal favourites on the shelf and I don’t want to pick them up. I worry that I can’t read them anymore. I worry that I’m illiterate in the most important way that I used to be literate when I was sixteen and spending Christmas Day in a bookstore with a gift certificate burning a hole in my pocket.

Erin has begun requesting that I tell her the words in her books. Emily started reading for fun again recently. Adrian has no interest in books at the moment. And I, the insatiable reader, am afraid of my own books.

What if I can’t read them anymore? What if they are boring now? Won’t that mean that I find my own self boring? Where’s the continuity of personality? What if I can’t sit through a book anymore because I’m just badly out of practice? What if I only have the attention for blog posts and short articles? What if I’m not interested in stories anymore because all I think about are arguments? What if what if?

Emily asked me not to turn the television on the other night after the kids were in bed. She was reading one of her books and wanted to keep reading it without distraction. I wanted to be with her, but not disturb her reading, so I didn’t go out into the living room to watch Dexter or The Big Bang Theory as I would have done nearly any other night. I looked up at the bookshelf, at the spine of a book I’ve had since I was fourteen years old and that I had re-read every couple of years throughout my teens and twenties. That night I picked it off the shelf and it was as though I was choosing myself again, choosing to appreciate who I used to be and what I used to like.

None of my fears proved to be connected with reality. I raced through a hundred pages that night before passing out, reading, not skimming, every word. I continued reading it the next day, and the next, and I was so obsessed with reading it that all I wanted to do was stay in bed reading my book all weekend long. While Adrian napped on Saturday I read in bed, and Erin sat next to me looking at one of her books and asking me to read mine out loud to her, which I did.

I’m better, I see, at reading than I am at writing, because I began this post as a bit of a defense of my answer on the form asking if I read to Adrian. I don’t read to Adrian. But I’m finally reading to myself again. And despite my aversion to reading at home, Erin has developed her very own appetite for it. I’m sure Adrian will do the same. But I don’t think I need to dictate it to them.

I probably just need to set a good example. I have lots of books that need my attention now, so that shouldn’t be a problem. (Editor’s Note: I do not own a copy of The Mammoth Hunters now. When I became an adult I put away childish things.)