Reading for Fun (Or, Can I Pass Down My Love for Reading?)

I taught first-year writing while I was pregnant with my daughter. One day, one of my students asked me if there was something I wanted my daughter to inherit—you know, something like my Spanish language or my boyfriend’s height. I told her I wanted my daughter to love reading; one of the things that scared me was the possibility of my daughter not loving books. I told the students that my love of literature was one of the things that brought me to the English department and that it was something my boyfriend and I had in common. We have a sizeable library in our apartment, and we both grew up around books. Reading was truly, in our case, fundamental.

My daughter, fortunately, is surrounded by books, and I know this is half the battle, or at least that’s what some studies say. Before she was born her book collection was growing. We got her a bookcase for her room because we thought it was important for her to have a place for her books. Story Time is part of our bedtime routine, and she delights in taking books from her bookcase and leafing through them. (She also takes books from our bookcase on a regular basis; one of my pastimes is taking pictures of her “book of the day,” whatever random book from our bookcase that she seems to obsess over that day. So far her taste ranges from What to Expect When You’re Expecting to Richard Wright’s Native Son to Dick Schaap’s Flashing Before My Eyes to Edward Soja’s Thirdspace.) But I came across an article this past weekend that made me think about what can really make a difference in a child’s reading habits.

Lisa Belkin (ex-New York Times Motherlode blogger and now Huffington Post’s Senior Columnist for Parentlode) posted late last week about her new Parentlode Book Club. For now, Belkin says the club will focus on books about getting children to love reading. She mentions how she remembers as a child immersing herself in books while on vacation, and hoped her children would feel the same enthusiasm toward books. However, that’s not exactly how it panned out; it wasn’t until her son discovered Harry Potter that he felt that same ravenous desire for books. (And who knows if this indicates a ravenous desire for literature in general. I know people who may devour the Harry Potter series but don’t really care for reading in general.) Although this is not necessarily uncommon, what stuck with me was something one of the commenters, RMizrahiMSEd, mentioned: this person suggested that perhaps what shaped her son’s perception of reading was the fact that Belkin read for pleasure on vacation, but not around the house. Vacation, for Belkin as for so many others, meant that she could immerse herself in the books she couldn’t read when she was working. As a result, her son may not see that reading for fun was an option, reading.

This made me think about my own reading habits. My relationship to books is a little different from that of other people. Like I’ve mentioned before, my love for the written word prompted me to become an English major, a graduate student, and now a writer. I love reading, but, to a certain extent, grad school has spoiled the reading experience for me. Reading is part of my career…and it’s not as glamorous as it sounds, at least not right now. So when I want to take a break from work (and breaks keep me sane, despite the myths we create about academic work) I don’t usually read. I watch tv. On the other hand, I have taken to reading more on my computer screen or on my iPhone, whether in the shape of blog posts or articles or emails. I do a lot of my reading on the go. (Some may even say we read a lot more because of these devices.) And with a small daughter on the go, and with a two-hour commute, when I get home I like to spend time with my family, relax, and sometimes cook a good meal. I actually have to schedule time for reading for pleasure, like when I traveled to Las Vegas and planned to read Scott Poulson-Bryant’s The VIPs. I’d had that book for months, and I knew a plane ride was the perfect time to sit back and enjoy a good book.

Now that I think of it, my daughter doesn’t get to see me read. I work on my dissertation when she sleeps, and I try to take the time to relax with a good book (or with my Kindle) once she is asleep. I thought our story time and having books around would be good, but I hadn’t realized how my own reading habits would affect my daughter’s.

The New York Times recently reported that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended, yet again, that parents keep children’s screen time to a minimum; interestingly, the article points out that adults spend too much time staring at a screen, and not necessarily a tv screen. Whether it’s a tv, a phone, a laptop, our children see us staring at screens all day long. I wonder, though, how do we balance this out with the amount of reading some of us are doing on those screens? And how does that beat holding a book, if we’re still reading?

To be honest, I feel a tension between the exhortation that we spend less time staring at screens and more time engaging our children and staying active when there are some of us who do a lot of our reading on those same computer screens. I read books, but I also get a lot of reading done on my laptop and on my iPhone. In fact, I consider myself better informed now that I read on both devices. So, to break it down: Reading more? Good. Spending too much time in front of a screen? Bad. Reading more on a computer screen? Hmmm, gray area. How do you transmit the value of reading to a child who only sees you staring and staring and staring into the light?

One thing is for certain, Belkin’s article made me think about my own reading habits and my daughter. I will try to make an attempt to take out books to read when she’s reading her own. Instead of pulling out my phone and catching up on news or sending out a quick email I forgot while she takes out her books from her bookcase, I will try to bring my own book so we can read together, even if we’re not reading the same thing.