By Debbie Silver
(first published on the International Reading Teacher Association’s Reading Today Online Website, April, 2013)
I am writing this as a confession. For the first twenty-five years of my life I cannot recall ever voluntarily reading an entire book. I’ve always been enamored by a good plotline when watching a movie, following a TV show, or listening to someone tell almost any kind of story. Both my parents and my older brother were voracious readers who kept every book they ever read on shelves like little trophies. I should have been an avid reader of books, but I wasn’t.
I went to a fine public school and was instructed by competent teachers who told us how important it was to read. But I didn’t read.
My teachers did not know I wasn’t reading because I “fake read.” I was a sharp enough student to figure out that if I read the words written on the covers of books I could bluff my way through assignments and book reports. I was not illiterate — I was a slow reader, but I knew how to read. I just didn’t want to. I suppose today I would be labeled as alliterate because I used every device I could think of to avoid reading any book.
I thought the idea of reading for pleasure was an oxymoron. Teachers would give their list of approved selections, but none caught my interest. I thought they were boring and of no value except to get a grade on a test or book report. Occasionally I would observe classmates who always seemed to have “their private stashes of literature” with them to read during any stolen moment. I wondered what was wrong with them. Why would anyone read a book they weren’t required to read?
In class my teachers would introduce classic novels as great pieces of literature without really explaining the importance of what they could teach us about life and about ourselves. I’m sure my teachers were well intentioned, but they seemed to approach reading as a technical feat and/or memory exercise rather than as an experience to be savored. Every book report assigned was to be written in the accepted formula of title, author, setting, main characters, and summary. I was never asked what I thought about a book, how the book may have changed my thinking, or what kind of books I might like to try. For twenty-five years I read only what I absolutely had to. I made good grades, but I never read a book for pleasure, for curiosity, or for just more information.
I am embarrassed to admit this, but what finally began my appreciation of pleasure reading was a romance novel, Sweet Savage Love, by Rosemary Rogers. In my mid-twenties I was talking with a friend who brought along a copy of the book. She couldn’t seem to put it down. I teased her about being a “book nerd,” so she started telling me how steamy and romantic the book was. She summarized part of the plotline, and I was hooked. I had to know how the story ended. She handed me the book and said, “See for yourself.” And I did. I read every single word of the book. I was thoroughly entertained, and I felt like I had entered another world through the characters Ms. Rogers created. I asked my friend if there were any more books like that around. She smiled and said, “A few.” I read several more simple romance novels right away.
Never before had I experienced being swept up by the written word to another time and place. When I had to put my book down to attend to mundane duties I worried about what was going on with the characters; I could not wait to get back to see how everyone was faring. I was fascinated by the novelty of being able to pick right back up where I had left off no matter when I came back to the book. My character “friends” were always there awaiting me. I could visit them as many times as I liked.
And, of course, the more I read the better reader I became. I soon tired of romance novels and moved on to historical romance novels, then to historical novels, then to all manner of fiction, both classic and new. I discovered for the first time how a work of fiction can help a person understand history, psychology, geography, human behavior, philosophy and boundless areas of life.
I was struck by how much enjoyment I found in the stories, the people, and all I learned by taking a journey outside myself into the world of literature. But I was also saddened by how much time and opportunity I had missed for the first quarter of my life. I felt then and still feel that I can never catch up with all the books I have missed as I “fake read” my way through school. As a teacher I wonder why I was such a reluctant reader and how many students are missing the same things I did.
I think part of the problem is that I am a very slow, plodding reader with the attention span of a gnat. To this day I can listen to a book on CD, which I often do, faster than I can read it myself. But more than that, I somehow missed the fact that there were so many books available that I would have found relevant and appealing. I was well aware that there were numerous books required and/or recommended by my teachers, but I never found my personal Harry Potter or Judy Moody series that would beckon me to turn off the TV or stop talking to my friends and immerse myself in a private, more fulfilling kind of journey.
When I listen to people like Steven Layne, Dannny Brassell, and Donalyn Miller speak on how they help make books come alive for kids I am envious of the students in their classes who will know early on about coming of age novels to help them navigate the tricky waters of early adolescence and deeply thoughtful works that may change forever the way they think about the world. I am awe-struck by the creativity, the commitment, and the resourcefulness of teachers of reading who change lives every day by introducing students to the power of literature.
I applaud those educators who attend conferences, study pedagogy, and try countless strategies to inspire students to become lifelong readers. My apprehension, though, is for a growing concern I hear among teachers who feel they can no longer afford to spend time talking with students about the books they are reading or even for reading new literature themselves. With the pressure of a standardized curriculum, high sweepstakes testing, and too many “boxes to check,” many teachers feel they can no longer afford to indulge in the luxury of encouraging kids to read for pleasure.
Standards experts have shifted the curriculum to emphasize non-fiction and technical reading so that ideally students will be more ready to enter the workforce. More and more assessments have been developed to check students’ decoding and comprehension abilities at every step of the game. But where in the standards is there an emphasis on helping students discover the joy and the effect of reading literature for discovery, for enlightenment, or for entertainment? If we create a bunch of technically proficient readers who, like me, learn to avoid books that aren’t required, then what have we accomplished?
I am a product of teachers who were proficient in teaching me how to read but never why I should read. I never truly became a reader until I started reading for pleasure. I learned much too late that the best way to become a better reader is pretty simple – read!