I love to read, I cannot help reading, and I am not sure that I voluntarily could stop reading. My mother must have taught me, because I do not remember learning it. At least, by the first day of first grade, I could read all of Tip and Mitten. West Virginia’s lack of kindergarten, back in those dark days, must be taken into account when considering any eccentricities in my reading habits.
Natural desire must have formed a part of my reading habit, but when I think back, Mom and Dad took some actions that seem very familiar when I listen to the life stories of my honors students. Perhaps "you cannot get out of a man what God and nature did not put there," but you can sculpt it.
We were never well-off, especially as kids. There may be rich preachers, but my Dad was never one. I remember scrounging for change and returning bottles to help get groceries. We were, of course, not poor, but like characters in an English novel, had a genteel poverty that comes with being clergy. Yet books? There were always books.
Our house was full of books: interesting books, hard books, old books, strange books. I never had to look for a book: books were in the bathroom (the entire World Book, a bound and abbreviated Wikipedia, ended up there), books were in every bedroom, comic books littered the floor of the den, magazines were in racks in rooms. What wasn’t to read?
At no time in my life have I ever had “enough” bookcase space.
Mom read to us. If I am quiet, then I remember being forced, at great protest, to turn off the television and listen to her read books to the entire family as part of our evening entertainment. I did not like it, but I came to love her voice and now the memories are precious to me.
There were fewer “audiobooks” then, but because Dad was legally blind, we did have access to Alexander Scourby reading Scripture on records. I remember “reading along” with the King James and surely that beautiful language did me some good. There were books on records, abridged generally, but hearing the words made me see the words better.
I envy my children the thousands of audiobooks now available. Reading with your ears is different, but as rich as reading with your eyes.
Mom had a habit of buying old advice books from different eras. Who knew that how a woman held her fan could communicate paragraphs of meaning? We knew from studying them. And there might be something funnier than Dr. Chase’s advice on "how to avoid vice and be healthy," but not to an eight year old. We laughed and laughed. Dad had some rare old books of theology and soon I was reading The Midnight Cry and getting a view of the way people thought decades before my birth.
Older books left me friends with entire periods of history. Victorians were neighbors, not strangers. Romans were friends, if not countrymen. Reformers lived on anther block in time, not in another city.
The Bible helped. I was allowed dislike reading the Bible - to enjoy Narnia more than Scripture - but I was not allowed to stop reading the Bible because of it. My parents introduced me to the idea that my “liking” was not a measure of the importance of the text. Nobody has ever shaken that notion.
My parents never had to censor my reading. Because there was no Internet, and librarians took their job seriously, I could read whatever I found in the house or the library. Going to the library was a treat. When my parents were having guests, with great luck, I could get a stack of fairy tales (often Russian!) or some Tin Tin comics from the library, grab some cheese and crackers (and on the best day some Vienna sausages) from the party food, and be left alone just to read.
I close my eyes and can see the top of the bunk bed covered in books, snacks, and my stuffed animals. The sound of adult conversation below me and an uninterrupted evening ahead of me: it never has gotten much better.
If I got interested in a topic, then Mom would look for resource books. I still can name (some!) of the islands of Japan, because she spent a day with us working on it.
My parents never let me read passively. I became fascinated with the Civil War and Mom debated the conflict with me. Our family heritage was Union - what West Virginian isn’t proud of being Lincoln’s state - and so she attacked my easy Bluecoat assumptions. I had to defend my beliefs and she knew how to turn a phrase. Our debates would last an entire Saturday.
When I was older and Isaac Asimov became my craze, my Dad engaged my lazy scientism. He made me defend it and I soon saw how shallow it was. I kept reading Asimov, but with an open mind to his prejudices and my own. Seeing I loved science fiction, Dad brought home the C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy in a boxed set and threw it at my head.
They did not hit my head, but they have never left my mind since that first day. Dad never told me to read them, never mentioned them again. He knew.
My parents faced an awkward challenge: moderating my reading. Once my Dad told me (rightly) to stop reading at the table during meals, only to discover that the cereal box - all sides of the cereal box - had engaged my attention. Mom once experimented to see how long I would read in the bathroom, until the need for the facilities forced her to end the test.
My parents got me to read, but then taught me to moderate my reading. They sent my outside to build Narnia in tree forts, to play soccer, to ride my bike. I spent an entire day riding my bike in circles around a parking lot being Don Juan of Austria and winning the Battle of Lepanto though some elaborate mental game related to obstacles in the lot. Games incarnated the books.
Which brings me to a final point: I had an amazing amount of free time as compared to a kid today. My life was not programmed with activities and we did not always own a television. I am sure that my math skills would have been better with Saturday math classes, but I was allowed to waste most of it playing with a chemistry set (back when you could build bombs with them) in the basement.
I am not saying any of this made me a reader, but it allowed me to read. School would find me reading and slowly discipline the habit and broaden the type of books. But when it came, school found a reading foundation laid by Mom and Dad.
Next, I will bless my teachers and discuss habits of reading they taught me.