‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library’
Jorge Luis Borges
Last year, my new year’s resolution was to read more books. I confess that I stole it from a friend. It was New Years Eve, and we were- as you do- discussing resolutions and the pointlessness of them, when she told me hers was the very simple ‘read more books’. Genius. Simple, positive and entirely do-able, so I promptly stole it for my own. And I am very glad that I did.
I have always been a big reader. Even in my teens, when my other pre-occupations were trying on clothes and writing ‘I love ** 4 eva ‘on my hand, I was happy to while away hours reading. But years of parenting plus work that involves reading for research meant that novels had started to become the luxurious preserve of holidays for me. Only then would I have my fill- literally gorge on books for a two week stretch. I would then return home with great resolve to read forevermore but would rarely make it past the first chapter of anything.
And yet the year I made my resolution, I started to read again. I am not sure what changed (because resolve is not usually a forte of mine) but for that whole year I had a novel on the go.
This year, reading wasn’t one of my resolutions (they were, in no particular order 1) Listen to more jazz 2) Learn more card games and 3) Drink more water) but it seems that this time around I havent needed the resolve. Somehow, I have read every day since January 1st and what a pleasure! It helped that my stocking contained a completely brilliant read – I won’t be the first person telling you that Donna Tart’s Goldfinch was worth the decade long wait. But there was another thing that inspired me to keep going- and it was, I am delighted (and surprised) to say, my own children.
Over the whole Christmas holiday, whilst I was running from present wrapping to bonfire building to turkey basting (and to endlessly tidying up- talk about the boy with his finger in the dyke) I would find any one of the kids and sometimes all three of them, curled up in various locations around the house with their noses in books. And if there was ever something that beats reading a compelling page-turner of your own- and I can think of few greater pleasures- it is happening upon your children doing it. On sofas, in their beds, in the hall way wrapped in their favourite Tibetan rugs .The locations changed and the books they read differed but universal was how completely and utterly relaxed they seemed, in a way- I suspect- that few other pursuits could possibly engender. Apart from, perhaps, lying in a hammock with your face in the sun, and where was I going to be doing that on December 28th in the Northern Hemisphere?
From where I stood, reading was looking like relaxation on a drip. I needed (always need) some of that.
Now I have been a parent long enough to know that the strange ‘pride’ I felt on discovering these little bookworms scattered all over the house was a misplaced emotion. The only people still arguing over the nature v nurture debate are the scientists. Any self-respecting parent of more than one child knows that we can do little more than plant a few seeds and watch them grow.
And I am also old and wrinkly enough to know that this little bookworm fest could well be short-lived. I don’t fear that they will all suddenly profess to a loathing of books, but by the same token fast forward to an unusually wet Easter holiday and my blog could well be lamenting their screen obsession.
‘This too will pass’, in good times and bad, rightly counsels my father-in-law.
I suspect I am not alone in positively relishing their love of books, and in wanting to work out not just how to get children to start reading but how– in the face of the many other more technological alternatives- to keep them doing so.
Tips on how to get children to read abound. ‘Read to them’ is probably the most touted, some say from day one if you are feeling especially over-zealous. I admit I tried to do as I was told ( I am sure in the madness that is only ever the prevail of the first time parent, I did actually attempt to read to my dribbling four month old) but I would be lying if I said that over the years there hadn’t been great bouts of lapsing, when I would tell myself the great big lie that I didn’t have time. And then I would read an article about bedtime stories going by the wayside, or only a third of children getting read to at night, or there being a quarter of a million children in Britain who didn’t actually own a single book (?!) and the bedtime story routine would begin again with renewed vigour. But it was by no means fail safe.
Having books in the house, or getting membership to a library is another one, apparently. Our own library membership was alive and well until I racked up such an enormous late bill that I didn’t dare go through the doors, lest I need to remortgage my house before taking out another picture book. But as a good way to spend a rainy afternoon with a toddler it takes some beating- you leave with a book, you feel very virtuous for having helped keep an institution -which should be non negotiable- alive, and you have whiled away several hours in getting there, choosing stories and getting back home again. Tick, tick, tick.
No doubt the array of books out there is helping create bookworms without any of our help at all. Good children’s writers used to be counted on one hand- the likes of Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton and C.S.Lewis famous in part for their being so unique. But in the last ten years, certainly since I have had children, there has been a veritable explosion in the children’s book section. For a generation that seem almost bludgeoned by technology, the quite revolution being waged by children’s writers should be more lauded. There are now endless amazing books, from picture books up to teen reads, that are the heady concoction of intelligently written and page-turning and very often they are one of a whole series which makes them the close rival to box sets in terms of addictiveness.
Phillip Pullman, himself one of these rightly lauded children’s writers, suggests reverse psychology.
‘The best way to get your children to read a story, ‘ he says ‘is to say : ‘This book is not appropriate for your age, and it has all sorts of horrible things in it like sex and death and some really big complicated ideas and you are better off not touching it until you are all grown up. I’m going to put it on this shelf and leave the room for a while. Don’t open it.’
He might well be on to something. How many of us read Judy Blume’s ‘Are you there God, Its me Margaret?’ or ‘Forever’ just because we weren’t supposed to? That she is one of the best-selling authors of all time and the most banned can’t be a complete coincidence.
And good book or not, the fact that on its first day of publication, no less than 200,000 copies of Lady Chatterly’s lover were sold owes everything to the fact that it had been banned for thirty years. If adults love what they can’t have, then you can only assume that children will- tenfold.
The list of how we might get them to read is endless, but little touted as a means to get your children reading- and keep them reading- is a (recent)theory of my own. How about just read. Ourselves. And visibly.
Because if the sight of my children, curled up and engrossed, was enough to make me stop running around and pick up a book instead, then why wouldn’t it work in reverse? Children- despite our counsel – do what we do, not what we say. So it could well be, that reading ourselves proves the most compelling (and easiest) sales pitch of them all. I have no doubt it worked on me……
‘You can never get a cup of tea large enough, or a book long enough to suit me’