Roundtable: Formative Reading Experiences (Part I)

Siobhan Carroll

First, I have to say that I really appreciated the thoughtful replies made to the last roundtable. I felt rather ashamed when reading hestia’s remarks that I hadn’t said more in defense of the social piñata that is American Education, and more particularly, in defense of the hard-working teachers and librarians who are out there trying to encourage literacy.

Some of us, at least, know all too well that “Bad Teachers” are not really to blame for kids preferring video games to books, or for parents who don’t read to kids, or even for the person who claims that “I used to love reading but I stopped when my Grade X teacher made me read a book I didn’t like.”

(Please. If you really enjoyed doing something, a single bad book or bad teacher wouldn’t kill your enjoyment of that activity. That’s like saying “my evil ex forced me to watch me an episode of Jersey Shore once, so now I no longer enjoy watching TV.” Again, please.)

Bringing this round to parents: in a previous conversation on this topic, I noted that what the “I used to love reading” cliché often points to is the change in the social experience of reading. Up through Grade 6, reading is still a social activity: teachers read books aloud to the class; if a kid’s lucky, her parents might read to her aloud at home.

But in middle school social reading disappears. Instead, kids are expected to read silently on their own. If the kid is socially-oriented, the much of the “fun” of reading suddenly disappears. In its place is an activity that isolates the kid at the very moment that more is being expected of her reading skills. If the kid in question has difficulty reading, or has a limited imagination, reading can quickly become an activity fraught with anxiety. Years later, this process gets remembered as “I used to love reading until Grade X.”

I wonder, sometimes, if we ought not to be doing more to preserve the social aspects of reading. We use it as a carrot to get kids reading, but once they reach a certain age “family time” is no longer reading time. Parents might still watch TV with teenagers, but they no longer read with them.

And it wasn’t always this way. In the 19C, reading was one of society’s central social activities. Family members would gather in the parlour to read aloud — and often “act out” — scenes from Charles Dickens, for example. The popularity of Dickens is a lot easier to understand in that light.

Anyway, in answer to Karen’s original question: my parents encouraged reading. They didn’t encourage the reading of fantasy or science fiction, though. To quote my mother: “When I was your age, my favourite book was Jane Eyre, and I grew up to be a teacher. You say your favourite book is Watership Down?!! What are you going to be when you grow up??? A RABBIT???!”

…and so I grew up to be a professor who teaches both Jane Eyre and Watership Down in class. Win!

Rich Horton

This reminds me that I didn’t mention that my mother had been a teacher, and her Master’s was in Children’s Literature (or Kidlit as she called it). She gave up teaching when she got married, so her as a teacher was not an identity we kids associated with her, but it must have had an affect on her attitude towards reading.

Early books I remember — the Cowboy Sam series (which I was later told were remedial reading — so what!), lots of dinosaur books, Narnia, Danny Dunn, and of course, endlessly, again and again, Dr. Dolittle. (Also Jane Eyre, fairly  young, one of my mother’s books, so I suppose she introduced more to me than Agatha Christie.)

Gardner Dozois

I’ve gotten the “you like to read a lot, you should be viewed with deep suspicion and maybe even shunned” meme for my entire life, and still get it occasionally.  It’s a very strong thread in American life, especially among the working-class, among whom I grew up.  In high school, my father asked me, with honest puzzlement, “You sure do read a lot.  Are you a faggot?”

Like Gary, my earliest exposures to SF/and fantasy were in the library (where, in addition to the Heinlein and Andre Norton juveniles we discussed last time, I read The Hobbit years before I read The Fellowship of the Ring) and the spinner racks in drugstores.  There were no actual bookstore in town, the nearest being in Boston twenty-five miles away, and even if there had been, bookstores in those days rarely carried paperbacks, and I couldn’t have afforded hardcovers.  I did once hit a treasure-trove of old mouldering copies of Unknown and Astounding magazines in a used bookstore in Scolley Square in Boston (back when Scolley Square existed), and that was a massive Sense of Wonder hit.  The Ace Doubles, which you could find in drugstore spinner racks and occasionally on some newsstands, were also important to me, particularly when they started reissuing all the Edgar Rice Burroughs titles circa 1962.  To this day, looking at old Ace Double covers, the pulpier the better, fills me with a nostalgic Sense of Wonder rush.

Brett Cox

My parents were both readers, and I grew up in a house full of books.  My mother especially was a book junkie and always had something at hand to read.  Her tastes ran to mysteries, historical fiction, and the Mary Stewart/Victoria Holt school of romantic suspense.  (She told me once that she had not only read Gone with the Wind when it was first published but read it in a single day.)  An added, and equally significant, influence was my brother, who was almost ten years older than I was and, as I’ve written here before, opened the sf gate for me.  They all read to me before I could read and were all delighted that I learned to read before I started school–in sharp contrast to my first-grade teacher, who, per Gardner’s remarks, seemed to take my running ahead of schedule as a personal insult.  (With “formal” education now essentially starting with infant daycare, maybe that’s not as much of an issue as it used to be.)  To top it all off, I was under no restrictions as to what I could or couldn’t read, which meant, from one direction, comic books were OK, and from another, so was The Catcher in the Rye, which I read for the first time when I was eleven.  I could not have asked for more.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

I grew up in a house full of books. My parents were avid readers and lovers of culture and they bought books profligately: Book-of-the-Month Club features and alternates, sets in fine bindings, mass market paperbacks (trade paperbacks didn’t exist back then), treasuries, digests–you name it. I’m convinced that I became a reader because, as soon as I learned to walk, I was confronted at eye level with bookcases jammed with books. A lot of those were compilations of classics that introduced me to genre writers such as Arthur Machen, Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, even Tolkien (in a treasury for children that reprinted the first chapter of The Hobbit). One of my most favorite and dreaded books was Edward Gorey’s anthology The Haunted Looking Glass, which was part of the boxed set Looking Glass Library that also included Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, several of Andrew Lang’s fairy books, and if memory serves Edith Nesbit’s Five Children and It. I say favorite and dreaded because the stories and illustrations in that book so creeped me out that I fought the compulsion to have it removed from my room each night at bedtime. (Obviously, I was beginning to appreciate early the contrapuntal attraction and repulsion of horror tropes.)

No limits were imposed on my early reading. When I began to show a fondness for fantasy and science fiction my parents didn’t try to steer me to “more worthwhile reading”instead. Their main concern was that I was bringing home far too many books. Our local library had a weekly book sale and I used to swoop in and picked up all the science fiction discards in hardcover (and still in mylar library jacket covers with that telltale atom/rocket sticker pasted on the bottom of the spine to indicate that it was science fiction)–usually for a quarter apiece.

When I got to be an adolescent, things changed a little. I never asked, but I sensed that parents thought some of my teenage rambunctiousness might be caused by transgressive notions I was picking up from my reading. My mother not too forcefully tried to deter me from reading Lord of the Flies at the age of 12 when I saw the Peter Brook film on television (ah! those were the days). I had to carefully hide my copy of A Clockwork Orange because my parents had heard how brutal Kubrick’s film was and wouldn’t have tolerated their 12-year-old son reading it. When the movie Planet of the Apes came out, I wanted to see it as badly as all of my friends did, but was forbidden because my mother (who truth be told was very liberal-minded) didn’t like the idea of a film in which humans were subservient to apes. (Ironically, the following year, she packed me off to a matinee showing of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey which, as we know, turns on the idea that humans might never have evolved from apes with without a goosing down the evolutionary path by something a little less than Divine, but equally as inscrutable, as the Prime Mover). I still vividly remember a weekend sneaking off to the bathroom every hour or so to read a copy of a friend’s movie tie-in edition of the Pierre Boulle novel 10 pages or so at a time. (My parents thought I was down with  bad case of the stomach flu that weekend.) One day, my mother told me that she took exception to the copy of Harlan Ellison’s Approaching Oblivion which I had reverently shelved with all of my other Science Fiction Book Club treasures. To this day, I don’t know which story she browsed that upset her (though I suspect it was “Pretty Maggy Moneyeyes”).

When I think of my childhood, I always think of books. They were a constant presence in my home life.

4 thoughts on “Roundtable: Formative Reading Experiences (Part I)

  • November 8, 2011 at 8:19 am

    My parents, wisely, wanted to know what I was reading fell in certain parameters. I don’t have issues with them not wanting me exposed to a lot of sex or foul language at a certain age, because I know I wasn’t ready to handle that stuff like most kids and I think parents have a responsibility as do teachers and others. I would certainly handle it the same way with my kids. What we write and what people read has influence and impact on behavior. It’s undeniable not just based on studies, but based on my own experience. Books influenced me extensively in how I viewed the world, things I said, how I acted, my desires, etc., so now, as an author myself, I take seriously my responsibility to write with care. I don’t believe in gratuitous uses of things but that they really must serve the story. Shock value isn’t enough to me. Nor is rage at the gatekeepers. That’s my own approach, I realize not everyone agrees. I self-censor even now what I expose myself too. Things that are too salacious turn me off. So I think it’s only responsible parenting to do that for kids. What I find a bit disappointing is that every August-September and January you go to bookstores and see the same 15 books labelled classics prominently displayed because kids are being asked to read those same books that I read. Ok, there are some great, not to be missed books on that list but who’s to say a lot of great, more contemporary authors whom kids might more readily relate to can’t serve the same purpose? With reading going down in popularity, particularly amongst boys, I think it’s ridiculous to not make an effort to get kids excited about reading by encouraging it however we can. More effort needs to be made to find books people are excited about and get them to read them. Even if they aren’t for credit. For example, I’ve heard of schools giving 5 minutes a day to read whatever you want. That’s a great start. I personally think 15-30 min would be better, but hey, school days are limited with curriculum demands, I get that. But certainly a mix of assigned and freely chosen for fun books would help encourage reading for many students as well. Lots of possibilities. Teachers should be created and be able to do so.

  • November 8, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    I grew up with my mother reading to me until I was old enough to read for myself. I was precocious so I was reading adult adventure books from the age of seven onwards, e.g. Sax Rohmer, Dornford Yates, Sapper, and so on. Early in the 1950s I discovered SF, fantasy and horror, and never looked back. It’s been a life happily misspent and, of course, I blame my mother.

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