It’s About Reading For Pleasure

One week during the summer I was twelve, I had a crisis.

I ran out of library books.

Sure I rode my bike, went swimming with friends, and listened to music trying to figure out what the lyrics meant but I also indulged in hours of reading every day. Books transported me. My mother would call me to dinner and I’d look up, astonished to find I wasn’t a wolf on the tundra but a girl in shorts lying on the carpet. Or someone would knock on the bathroom door and I’d remember that I was soaking in the tub, not eluding soldiers in a medieval battle.

My parents supported reading, but they had no problem saying “get your nose out of that book and go outside.” They didn’t take us to the library more than two or three times a month, so the stack of books each of us brought home had to last.

When I realized I was bookless, I turned in desperation to a volume my older sister read as a class requirement. It had tiny print and a not-too-inspiring title, The Scarlet Letter. “It’s too hard,” she told me. “It’s a classic.”

I didn’t know “classic” meant it was good for me, like a bitter vitamin tablet. I insisted I was out of other options.

I promptly fell into Nathaniel Hawthorne’s words. They were exquisite in a way I’d never experienced, centered on the inner life and all its convolutions, something I already knew well but didn’t have the sophistication to express. I wasn’t aware such books existed. Instead of racing through it, as I did with every other book, I savored it. It felt as if I could run my fingers over the page and feel the texture of shame and longing. When I finished I was newly in love with the idea of classics, so I got books by Charles Dickens out of the library. I worked my way through two of them that summer although they didn’t live up to my great expectations. I thought Dickens droned and was nothing like Hawthorne.

Several years later I had to read The Scarlet Letter for English class. Everyone grumbled when assigned more pages to read. Those piercing insights, when listed in bullet points on the board, didn’t sink into my heart. Lectures and assignments obscured the book’s beauty. I didn’t read it with a cloak thrown over my head or the prick of a rose thorn in my skin. It lay dead, like a victim on the autopsy table.

Then I realized that my love of books had developed entirely outside of the classroom. I’d never really fallen in love with any of the books assigned in school, although the ones our teachers read aloud after recess, a few pages a day or an entire chapter on special days, still stood out in my mind. Reading, for me, was about pleasure. It was more than a habit, it was an integral part of my being. The books I read helped form my outlook and character. I dare say that many of us, if we look back, will find that favorite books from childhood have a surprising link to who we are today.

If I could, I’d reclaim reading for all of us, from earliest childhood on, as pleasure first and foremost. Turning to the written word for information and edification then becomes a pleasure too.

17 thoughts on “It’s About Reading For Pleasure

  1. Isn’t it amazing how school turns us against things. Analysis of what should remain magical is hard to stomach when you’re young, and reading was always magical. I still loathe Dickens as a result of having to dissect his books in school. Like you, I turned to ‘adult’ books when I ran out of reading material, and discovered vocabulary, imagery, philosophy, endings that weren’t happy and people who weren’t nice. Mind-expanding in the way no drug could ever be!

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  2. I, too, learned to love reading, and could choose my own library books. But those I was required to read for school were sometimes impossible to enjoy. I just plodded through those. Still remember the time we were assigned to read Macbeth. There was no class discussion about it, and I could not make any sense of Shakespearean English, and had never seen one of his plays in a theater. When I wrote a test on it, my score was 1 correct answer out of 25. The teacher never said anything about my test, which I thought was even more weird.

    And I agree with you that tearing a writer’s work apart to analyze it spoils the magic, if you *had* found any in it.

    Reading for pleasure is delicious.

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    • Macbeth is a good example of where kids surely need help! I’ve taken my kids to lots of plays over the years, including Shakespeare. We got familiar with the plot by reading a children’s version of the play, often in picture book form. We talked in advance about the words, the meanings, the subplots so the play would be more enjoyable and much more comprehensible.

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  3. This is exactly how I feel! I hated reading classics when I was required to read only classics and give a book report on them when I was in middle school. More recently, though, I was given the book The Secret Garden for my birthday. I found that I actually enjoyed reading it! Now I’ve set out to read the classics, something I never thought would interest me.

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  4. Such a lovely post! (Am I saying that because I can relate so well to it? Hmm.) You remind me of a time when my father allegedly offered me money to look up from the book I was reading; I heard no such offer. Also, before our long family vacations I used to load up on as many library books as I could. I still recall being probably junior high age and reading _The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich_ in the back seat of our station wagon.

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