There have been over the last few months – and I’m sure you’ve seen them – articles circulating. Perhaps you read one in The New Yorker. Perhaps you saw an enraged discussion on Twitter. Perhaps you saw a delightful evisceration or a snarky confrontation on Tumblr. In any case, the format has been the same – some stuffy grownup laments in a poorly-thought-out article about the State of Reading. Adults are reading books for children! Oh, Woe! Children are reading books that they actually enjoy! Oh, Fie! People are reading books that I do not enjoy and do not match this ascot! Gracious, gracious me! The world, it would seem, is on its way to an unpleasant destination after being tucked into this cozy handbasket.
And the concern has been palpable. “If,” one pundit posed, “American adults only read five novels a year, shouldn’t those books be at their level?” This argument particularly interested me, actually, because it revealed the fundamental fallacy in the initial postulations upon which these arguments are built. They are assuming that a book is an accomplishment. Like running a 10k. Or scoring well on a test. Something to be finished, checked off, removed from the to-do list, and probably not thought of again.
But they’re not. Books are not accomplishments. They are relationships. And how we build those relationships matter.
Let me explain:
Around this time last year, I was in the midst of an epic battle. My son, now ten, because of his testing anxiety, had been placed in one of the lowest Reading classes – problematic in and of itself, made more problematic in the dramatic shift in pedagogy between the upper and lower Reading groups. The kids who tested well were placed in Literature, where they, as a group, delved into great works of Children’s Literature - Black Beauty; The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; The Jungle Book. They would read and discuss and make art. It was a wonderful foundational class. The kids in the lower reading group were stuck in a SRA curriculum, which meant they did not read great great novels at all. Instead they read passages from a text book, out loud, placing a stylus on each word as they went, and if they did not read it perfectly, they had to go back. Which meant, if the kids got bored (they were all bored), and they found themselves wandering, and sometimes misplacing an “a” for a “the”, they couldn’t progress, and had to do the same passage and the same chapter over and over and over. It was punitive. It was demoralizing. It was awful. And I had a kid who said he was “too stupid to read.”
And that’s when my eyeballs caught fire.
That all changed when I fought to get him moved. (And believe me, it was a fight. I donned my armor and pulled out my Sword of Righteousness and marched into battle. As any mother would) Once he was safely placed in his Literature class, from the very first day, he transformed. Instantly. And it was wonderful. The first book he read in that class was The Cricket in Times Square. Now here’s the thing about my son – he is a creative, energetic, highly tactile boy. He enjoys reading, and reads well, but he often just had too much energy to sit down and read. He wanted to run. He wanted to build. He liked listening to books, because he could make crazy spaceships with his Legos while he did so. But this book. This was transformative. It was the first time that I saw him reading ahead, and going back and re-reading passages. It was the first time I ever heard him quote a book he was reading. It was the first time that I saw him get teary-eyed when he read a book, or apply his reading of a text into regular-life situations. He had a relationship with that book. And he counted those characters as his friends.
And that got me thinking.
These articles – these hand-wringing, pearl-clutching, tut-tutting articles – all suffer from the same pedantic sneer, this assumption that since I, the writer, do not particularly care for what those people are reading, that it is somehow suspect. That it is not as cultured or illuminated or difficult or grownup. It does not show up in Harold Bloom’s ranting about Cannon. It was not plucked from a polished library full of old leather tomes by great, white men. It is a book with magic in it. It is a book with speculative science in it. It is a book with children in it. It is – horror of horrors – a book with teenaged girls in it. How we ever got to a point in our culture where reasonable-looking grownups feel no qualms in saying that the lives and struggles of teenaged girls are not worth reading about is mystifying to me. The most recent Nobel Peace Prize winner is a teenaged girl, for crying out loud. And what’s more, what these writers are totally missing out on is the fundamental nature of reading.
Listen. Reading is not consumption. A book is not an accomplishment. And if you think either of those things are true, then you are missing out on the transformative power of a book.
My son, right now, is reading A Wrinkle in Time. Because of that, he is filled with questions about physics and cosmology and astronomy. And angels. And Free Will. And giant brains. He has pulled out all of my astronomy books that I brought home when I participated in the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop. He has discovered Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He talks about Calvin and Meg as though they were extra members of our household. He is building Camazots in Lego. He is drawing pictures of the Happy Medium. He sometimes dresses up as Mrs. Whatsit. He wrote a poem about Charles Wallace. He approaches the text with his full self – his curiosity, his creativity, his need for motion, his need to build – and offers his Self to the story. And the Story, in turn, offers itself to my child. That is how it’s done. Open-hearted reading.
My son gets it. I think you get it. But, in our wildest dreams, will the stuffy grownups at Harpers or The New Yorker or Salon or whatever – will they get it too? Do we dare to hope for such a thing?
I will hope. It is what I do.
My reading – like most people I know – is broad and wide. I read a lot. I do not stick to a single genre. I read children’s books and grown ups books and science books and picture books and old books and new books. I do not care what anyone thinks of that. I sometimes read in fits and starts. I have books around my house in various stages of mid-read, with bits of paper sticking out, sometimes with little notes on them. “Remember this for later,” my notes say. Or, “Use this passage the next time you teach a class.” Or, “Why the hell can’t you write like that, Barnhill?” Or, “Write this on your skin.”
I finished Dana Sobel’s Longitude recently – a book about how one clockmaker changed navigation forever. I just finished We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler, and I don’t know why it took me so long to pick that one up. It was wondrous. I just started Glory O’Brian’s History of the Future, by A.S. King. It is also wondrous. It is YA. It is magical. It transcends every boundary imaginable, just as all great fiction should. And I’m also reading One, Two, Three . . . Infinity, by George Gamow, which, oh my gosh, you guys! Read it right now. It is marvelous. I’m also reading A Creature of Moonlight, by Rebecca Hahn. Also wonderful. That voice! That vision! It is a remarkable book. I’ve also been very slowly reading through The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer – an exhaustive anthology of Weird fiction. It is amazing. You should read it. And, since the passing of Galway Kinnell, I’ve been reading through my various volumes of his work. Because I love him forever. And I have a copy of The Book of Imaginary Beings, by Jorge Luis Borges, that I keep on my desk. I page through it and let his odd-ball versions of reality, wrought in precise, alarmingly-clear prose, pummel my brain. Wake up! Borges tells me yet again. Pay attention! The world is wondrous strange! Get it right! And so I do. Borges is my personal trainer. And he is ever so bossy. And soon I will start The Grimjinx Rebellion, by Brian Farrey. If it is anything like the first two books in that series (WHICH WERE AWESOME), I have no doubts that it will be marvelous. I read short fiction as well – on Clarkesworld and Tor.com. And in the New Yorker. And McSweeney’s. And my every-three-week arrival of One Story.
For those of you keeping track at home, what we see here is that I read everything. I read nonfiction and fiction. History and science. Literary fiction and Middle Grade fiction and Horror fiction and Science Fiction and Young Adult fiction and Fantasy Fiction. I don’t read a lot of Romance – not through any kind of snobbery, but simply because I’m unfamiliar enough with the genre that I don’t know who the good writers are (if you have any suggestions, please send them!) The point is this: I love reading. I love the touch of paper in my fingers. I love the smell of ink. I love the loafe and lean of my couch. I love resting a mug of tea on my belly and balancing the book on my knees. I love letting my mind wander. I love asking questions. I love wrestling with a text. I love caring about characters. I love staying up late with breathless pages, wondering what will happen next. I love every dang bit of it.
Books are maps, yes. And they are mirrors and lamps. And they are the cultural threads that bind us together. But they are more than that. They live with us. They comfort us. They remind us that we are not alone. When I read, I am offering myself to the story. I bring to the story – any story – my own experience and knowledge. I bring my curiosity. I bring my empathy. I bring my own open heart. When we read, we are opening ourselves up to be changed. And the book, whatever we are reading, is doing the same thing. When I read a book, that book is changed. The version of the story that plays out in my head is unique to me. And when I communicate that version – that vision - the larger cultural understanding alters too. That’s how stories live in the culture. They are not static; they are not objects; they are not dead. Books, stories - they are alive. And when we connect ourselves to books, we are larger, brighter, interconnected, ensouled. We are more alive.
And when we talk about books – and our relationships with those books – we are not just talking about the books. We are talking about ourselves. And our loved ones. And the world.
When we ask one another, “What are you reading these days?” it should never be an occasion for judgement or assessment or assignment into any sort of pecking order. That would be missing the point. Instead, what we should say is this: Tell me what you felt. Tell me how you cared. Tell me what you carried with you – both toward and away. Tell me why we matter.
Happy reading, everyone. Please. Tell me what books are living with you right now. And tell me why they matter.