Re-Literacy

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.)

34 thoughts on “Re-Literacy”

  1. Perhaps the comment system is cracked. I'll post the first here to bump everything down a level.

    Let me just say that I love this post. I am so awesome at writing awesome awesomeness. Hooray for me.

  2. Perhaps the comment system is cracked. I'll post the first here to bump everything down a level.

    Let me just say that I love this post. I am so awesome at writing awesome awesomeness. Hooray for me.

  3. Perhaps the comment system is cracked. I'll post the first here to bump everything down a level.

    Let me just say that I love this post. I am so awesome at writing awesome awesomeness. Hooray for me.

  4. Book porn is childish?! Ha ha ha. Just thinking about reading that book makes me blush.

    I don't remember my parents reading much of anything except the Bible and other books directly related to the denomination I was raised in. (Notice, not just religious books?) And I'm completely addicted to reading. But I have a specific type of amnesia wherein I forget, almost completely, everything I read (or watch on tv or movies), which really sucked in college and the reason why I own and reread the Harry Potter books every year. I do not lie about this. I forget which books I borrow at the library (SO much cheaper than buying every book I read) so I often borrow books I've read before, remembering this only as I reach page 189 of a 211 page book.

    Evan begs me to read him books, and I hate to say it but I hate reading to him. I'd much rather be reading my own books….

  5. Book porn is childish?! Ha ha ha. Just thinking about reading that book makes me blush.

    I don’t remember my parents reading much of anything except the Bible and other books directly related to the denomination I was raised in. (Notice, not just religious books?) And I’m completely addicted to reading. But I have a specific type of amnesia wherein I forget, almost completely, everything I read (or watch on tv or movies), which really sucked in college and the reason why I own and reread the Harry Potter books every year. I do not lie about this. I forget which books I borrow at the library (SO much cheaper than buying every book I read) so I often borrow books I’ve read before, remembering this only as I reach page 189 of a 211 page book.

    Evan begs me to read him books, and I hate to say it but I hate reading to him. I’d much rather be reading my own books….

  6. I love this post too, so you're not alone.

    I work in book publishing, so my love of reading over the years has been affected because I work with books all the time. When I'm stressed at work, even looking at my bookshelf makes my eye twitch. Which makes me sad because those books have been my friends for years.

    I do read to my kid, not out of some feeling that it'll make him smarter or better at school, but because I like it and he likes it. Of course, he also likes eating the books, so you know, there's that.

  7. I love this post too, so you're not alone.

    I work in book publishing, so my love of reading over the years has been affected because I work with books all the time. When I'm stressed at work, even looking at my bookshelf makes my eye twitch. Which makes me sad because those books have been my friends for years.

    I do read to my kid, not out of some feeling that it'll make him smarter or better at school, but because I like it and he likes it. Of course, he also likes eating the books, so you know, there's that.

  8. I love this post too, so you’re not alone.

    I work in book publishing, so my love of reading over the years has been affected because I work with books all the time. When I’m stressed at work, even looking at my bookshelf makes my eye twitch. Which makes me sad because those books have been my friends for years.

    I do read to my kid, not out of some feeling that it’ll make him smarter or better at school, but because I like it and he likes it. Of course, he also likes eating the books, so you know, there’s that.

  9. I too read the Clan of the Cave Bear series around 10 or so. My mother tried to stop me – it didn't work.

    Also, I read to my 1st daughter every day since she was 6 months or so – she'd sit still in my lap long enough to finish a book. I know, weird.

    But, I've read to my 2nd daughter approximately 4 times since she was born (she is 15 months). I had a ridiculously demanding job that left me too tired to read. Also, every time we tried to read she'd just try to eat the book. I'm worried she'll have a complex if she's not as smart as her sister. Mostly, I'm afraid it will be my fault for not reading to her in her infancy.

  10. The first book that I remember reading with any obvious “adult themes” was The Hawkline Monster by Richard Brautigan. And while as an adult I don’t find anything particularly risqué about the book as a young girl (of age 9 or 10) I was amazed that my mother allowed me to read it!

    As for the Mammoth Hunters, I was 12 when it was released…by then I was hardened against sex.

  11. The first book that I remember reading with any obvious "adult themes" was The Hawkline Monster by Richard Brautigan. And while as an adult I don’t find anything particularly risqué about the book as a young girl (of age 9 or 10) I was amazed that my mother allowed me to read it!

    As for the Mammoth Hunters, I was 12 when it was released…by then I was hardened against sex.

  12. The first book that I remember reading with any obvious “adult themes” was The Hawkline Monster by Richard Brautigan. And while as an adult I don’t find anything particularly risqué about the book as a young girl (of age 9 or 10) I was amazed that my mother allowed me to read it!

    As for the Mammoth Hunters, I was 12 when it was released…by then I was hardened against sex.

  13. This post cracked me up. And I read multi-racial caveman porn round about my freshman year of high school. I learned a lot…it was educational. So, I read the whole series.

    And my kids have always loved words, so we read them. Sometimes they like words too much and we have to tell them to stop.

  14. This post cracked me up. And I read multi-racial caveman porn round about my freshman year of high school. I learned a lot…it was educational. So, I read the whole series.

    And my kids have always loved words, so we read them. Sometimes they like words too much and we have to tell them to stop.

  15. LOVE this. My daughter is 22 months and the last time I tried to read a book to her she brought out the TV remote and smacked it down on the pages. Kid knows what she likes.

    I worked in book publishing for years, I have a masters in writing, I am a zealous reader and even sometimes a book reviewer, but I don't buy into this whole supremacy of the written word deal. I read a lot, but I also watch a shitload of television and listen to a dizzying amount of NPR. I like stories. I like information. I'll take it however I can get it.

    As for my daughter, I hope she comes to love reading as much as I do, but right now she and I are both more preoccupied with speech. I believe (for reals) that she benefits from watching people speak and converse on television. That precludes cartoons and puppets (those we watch for fun) but I swear to god she's learning to talk from the Colbert Report.

    We still have heaps of books around and spend a lot of stuff pointing things out in them and making animal sounds, but that My Baby Can Read crap is total bullshit. I embrace my toddler's illiteracy.

  16. I'm a voracious book reader. (see, I can even use big words.) One of my fondest memories from when I was little is my dad reading to me. Am I such a big reader because of that? I think the answer is no.

    My sister read earlier and better than I did, and she didn't have our dad around to read to her. She was reading chapter books by the time she was 5. (I'm pretty sure she's an alien though.)

    Really though, I think my sister and I turned out to be such bookworms because our parents were. It was typical on a Friday night in our house for everyone to be curled up in various places with whatever book they were in the middle of reading. On the flip side, we did watch a lot of tv, too.

    We homeschool, and I'll let you in on a little secret. We don't do a reading curriculum of any kind. We have lots of books around, we let our kids see us reading for fun, we read books when asked, and help sound out words when asked, but that's it. The result? My two school aged kids are both reading two or three grade levels ahead, and they both read themselves to sleep at night.

    p.s.-those "Your baby can read!" things freak me out. What is the point of a baby reading? Not to mention you lose all those years of being able to spell things out in front of your kids without them knowing what you're talking about. Why would you throw that away?

  17. I’m a voracious book reader. (see, I can even use big words.) One of my fondest memories from when I was little is my dad reading to me. Am I such a big reader because of that? I think the answer is no.

    My sister read earlier and better than I did, and she didn’t have our dad around to read to her. She was reading chapter books by the time she was 5. (I’m pretty sure she’s an alien though.)

    Really though, I think my sister and I turned out to be such bookworms because our parents were. It was typical on a Friday night in our house for everyone to be curled up in various places with whatever book they were in the middle of reading. On the flip side, we did watch a lot of tv, too.

    We homeschool, and I’ll let you in on a little secret. We don’t do a reading curriculum of any kind. We have lots of books around, we let our kids see us reading for fun, we read books when asked, and help sound out words when asked, but that’s it. The result? My two school aged kids are both reading two or three grade levels ahead, and they both read themselves to sleep at night.

    p.s.-those “Your baby can read!” things freak me out. What is the point of a baby reading? Not to mention you lose all those years of being able to spell things out in front of your kids without them knowing what you’re talking about. Why would you throw that away?

  18. I’m a voracious book reader. (see, I can even use big words.) One of my fondest memories from when I was little is my dad reading to me. Am I such a big reader because of that? I think the answer is no.

    My sister read earlier and better than I did, and she didn’t have our dad around to read to her. She was reading chapter books by the time she was 5. (I’m pretty sure she’s an alien though.)

    Really though, I think my sister and I turned out to be such bookworms because our parents were. It was typical on a Friday night in our house for everyone to be curled up in various places with whatever book they were in the middle of reading. On the flip side, we did watch a lot of tv, too.

    We homeschool, and I’ll let you in on a little secret. We don’t do a reading curriculum of any kind. We have lots of books around, we let our kids see us reading for fun, we read books when asked, and help sound out words when asked, but that’s it. The result? My two school aged kids are both reading two or three grade levels ahead, and they both read themselves to sleep at night.

    p.s.-those “Your baby can read!” things freak me out. What is the point of a baby reading? Not to mention you lose all those years of being able to spell things out in front of your kids without them knowing what you’re talking about. Why would you throw that away?

  19. There are about a zillion reasons why I love this post, but the foremost one is that last night Oliver asked to take a book to bed with him. And then this morning he got up and asked for the DSi.

    (Glad to know ours isn't the only household where books are stepped on.)

  20. I re-read Jean Auel's Clan of the Cavebear series (all of them) every summer. Just cause I think they're so cool.

  21. I re-read Jean Auel's Clan of the Cavebear series (all of them) every summer. Just cause I think they're so cool.

  22. I re-read Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cavebear series (all of them) every summer. Just cause I think they’re so cool.

  23. I spent all of my 10th or 11th summer reading Clan of The Cave Bear and the Mammoth Hunters. At some point I also read Famous Last Words, which began a lifelong love of Timothy Findlay.

    I read to Cap'n Chaos because I really, truly hope that he develops the same love of reading that I have.

    *An aside: my mother allowed the cave-porn, but somehow not Sweet Valley High books. Strange…

  24. I spent all of my 10th or 11th summer reading Clan of The Cave Bear and the Mammoth Hunters. At some point I also read Famous Last Words, which began a lifelong love of Timothy Findlay.

    I read to Cap’n Chaos because I really, truly hope that he develops the same love of reading that I have.

    *An aside: my mother allowed the cave-porn, but somehow not Sweet Valley High books. Strange…

  25. Jean M. Auel has got to be better than V.C. Andrews, which was my introduction to book porn at 11!

    I really relate to the book burnout feeling. After all the reading and writing involved with my Master's thesis and the associated graduate school classes, I didn't read anything more than a short magazine blurb for the year after completing it. And I am also a avid reader completely addicted to books.

    I love to read to the kids when they sit still for the books, because it's a nice, quiet, relaxing time to spend with them. Because usually they are running me ragged with their high energy and whining! Heh.

  26. Jean M. Auel has got to be better than V.C. Andrews, which was my introduction to book porn at 11!

    I really relate to the book burnout feeling. After all the reading and writing involved with my Master’s thesis and the associated graduate school classes, I didn’t read anything more than a short magazine blurb for the year after completing it. And I am also a avid reader completely addicted to books.

    I love to read to the kids when they sit still for the books, because it’s a nice, quiet, relaxing time to spend with them. Because usually they are running me ragged with their high energy and whining! Heh.

  27. Jean M. Auel has got to be better than V.C. Andrews, which was my introduction to book porn at 11!

    I really relate to the book burnout feeling. After all the reading and writing involved with my Master’s thesis and the associated graduate school classes, I didn’t read anything more than a short magazine blurb for the year after completing it. And I am also a avid reader completely addicted to books.

    I love to read to the kids when they sit still for the books, because it’s a nice, quiet, relaxing time to spend with them. Because usually they are running me ragged with their high energy and whining! Heh.

  28. Not to be a party pooper but this

    "I don’t read to him. He points out pictures in books and I tell him what the pictures depict. "

    is actually promoting literacy in that it teaches kids – just as much as reading words – that graphic symbols are connected to language. So, you know, literally, no, it's not teaching to read C-A-T. But pointing to a picture of a cat and saying "CAT" is, figuratively, the process of becoming literate. It's how many schools teach now, and when parents ask me for good books to teach their kids to read, I recommend lots of pictures, few words.

    That said, I also subscribe to the "rot your brain" line of thinking in that any activity done beyond moderation takes time from other activities. I'm a Howard Gardner kind of girl even if his definitions of "intelligence" amount to no more than new agey feel gooditude. Honing one skill, one intelligence – whether it's literary or cinematic or kinesthetic or logical-mathematic or musical, etc. is fine and dandy for parlor tricks and eventual Ph.D.s and even a swell salary.

    However, what I want to give to the world most – as much as it's mine to hone and present – are people who have depth and breadth of intelligences, humans who speak as many "languages" as proficiently as possible so that they can empathize with and understand as many people as possible.

    I also think that literacy when it comes to video, television, film, etc. needs to be taught in some critical fashion. That some of us picked it up and picked it up well and without much bother is wonderful. However, a spin or two around the block and one realizes pretty quickly that a lot of people can read, can decipher images on a screen, but either don't do anything much with that information – which is fine, not every moment has to be some active teaching moment, I'm all for screwing around – or, they take in information without much critical assessment and then act on it, for better and worse. I can see Russia from my front porch, right?

  29. Thank you! I feel so much better for not reading to my 2 year old. Well I have more lately but only when she brings a book to me and demands story time but she seems more interested in making me do something for her.

  30. Thank you! I feel so much better for not reading to my 2 year old. Well I have more lately but only when she brings a book to me and demands story time but she seems more interested in making me do something for her.

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