Monday, June 11, 2007

How Did You Learn to Love Books?

Last night I read some pretty grim statistics about the reading habits of adult Americans. I spent some time looking at various websites to try to validate the numbers. Nothing I read was surprising. There is a direct correlation between education level and reading habits and a direct correlation between a child’s exposure to reading materials at home and his or her reading skills. There are no revelations there. The percentage of people who claim that they read books on a regular basis varies, depending on education level but on average it’s safe to say that less than half of all adults in this country read books at all. I was motivated to look into this after reading a post at the author, Eileen Cook's website that I initially found at Seize a Daisy.

I’ve been trying to figure out why some people can’t live without books and some people have no use for them. Almost everyone in my family, including my maternal grandfather who left school the age of nine, read books constantly. Secondary education didn’t factor in as there are few college graduates in my family. I don’t ever remember not reading. I remember the first time I did read words on a page. I remember books I read growing up – The Cat in the Hat, Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan, The Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales and a great one called, May I Bring a Friend? I remember reading Laura Ingalls Wilder in third grade and tearing through all the Little House on the Prairie books. My mother’s Nancy Drew Mysteries were at my grandmother’s house and I read all of them. I moved on to the YA of my day – S.E. Hinton -- and wore the covers off of The Outsiders and That Was Then, This is Now.

Sometime around sixth or seventh grade I started reading adult paperbacks. I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Love Story first and then I had pilfer books and read them in secret. There were stacks of books everywhere and when nobody was watching I read On the Beach, Alas Babylon, The Choirboys, The Carpetbaggers, The Happy Hooker (Yikes), Fear of Flying, Valley of the Dolls, Flowers for Algernon, The Exorcist, The Godfather, Trout Fishing in America and countless others.

I found a box of my father’s old books and entered my brooding junior high beatnik/existentialist phase, reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Howl by Allen Ginsberg, The Stranger by Albert Camus and No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre. I vaguely remember No Exit and reading these books up in my room while blowing cigarette smoke out the attic window and feeling pretty sophisticated. They had an impact on me and that summer between seventh and eighth grades I was caught shoplifting – yes, in a bookstore – a book about becoming a writer. I’d inherited my mother’s portable Smith Corona and typed out my adolescent angst on onionskin paper in that attic room night after night.

The first adult book I ever read that was recommended by a friend my own age was Carrie, Stephen King’s debut novel. A boy in my American History class told me I had to read it because it was “wicked good”. That was 1976, my freshman year in high school and I read every word King wrote for the next decade. Mr. Walker, my Freshman English teacher marked up a story I turned in for having sentence fragments and ellipses. I tried to argue that Stephen King wrote like that and Mr. Walker told me Stephen King was a bad writer. So much for early reviews.

Mr. Walker and my other teachers introduced me to Shakespeare, Homer, Thornton Wilder, John Knowles, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Anne Frank, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen Crane, Victor Hugo, Herman Melville, George Orwell, Tennessee Williams, Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain. I remember all my English teachers and I loved the world they showed me.

I read whatever I could find for many years, especially when I was in the Air Force. There was a lot of “hurry up and wait” so at 2 A.M. in a tent in the snow, I was just as likely to be reading a paperback the person on shift before me left behind, whether it was a World War II story, a Tom Clancy thriller, the biography of Ted Bundy or When Bad Things Happen to Good People the person who relieved me was to be reading The Catcher in the Rye or Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. We swapped books constantly. The Stars and Stripes bookstore had a limited selection but I found a hardcover once called The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by a new writer called Michael Chabon, I stumbled onto one or two Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins books and I read everything Anne Rice wrote that I could get my hands on.

For many years I've been overwhelmed with new releases and the desire to read with a more educated and critical eye. I want books that make me think, show me something I’ve never seen, present a perspective I’ve never heard and use words in ways I couldn't imagine. As a lifelong lover of books, my taste and choices have evolved to suit the time in my life. I’ve missed out on reading so many good ones. That's the biggest drawback to a lack of higher education. New and intriguing works come out every day. I’ve added a new category of links to Eudaemonia, called Literary Criticism and I’m learning a lot from these thoughtful bloggers.

I’m pretty sure the era I grew up in is long gone. Reading was natural when there were only a handful of TV stations, no video games and no such thing as a VCR, let alone cable or the internet. If you were grounded as much as I was, it wasn’t possible to survive without books and a library card. Making sure that books are plentiful and buying books for the children and young adults in my life has always been second nature, but the average kid doesn’t have the kind of time on his or her hands that I did. I know that exposure to books fosters a love of them, but what can each of us do to encourage the kids now?

How did you develop your love for books? Were you surrounded by them growing up? Who turned you on to books you loved as a teenager and young adult? Do your children love books as much as you do? Has your taste in books stayed pretty consistent or has it varied widely? What can be done to increase the number of readers in this country?

Note: A subsequent visit to Eileen Cook's site indicates she has started a revolution! Apparently I was only one of a lot of people who decided to pick up the ball and blog about this. Better still, there are some creative and hilarious suggestions about how to remedy this crisis. Stay tuned and look for more revolutionaries in the coming days.


kristen said...

Lisa, I love this post and I think about these same questions all the time. I think you and I are contemporaries—read a lot of those same books right around the same time.

I don't remember a time when I didn't love to read, when books weren't important. My aunt used to take me to the bookstore and say, "you can have whatever you want." (I do the same thing with my son. We never say no to books in this house...)

Anyway, I was maybe in junior high when my dad handed me Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and said, "This is one of the best books you'll ever read." Well, it was my dad and I was skeptical...but I read it and it really felt like my first grown up experience. It took off from there.

And yes, my taste has changed. I also want to only read books that will challenge me, in terms of craft or in terms of learning something new, but that can be exhausting. Sometimes, I just need to read, to get lost in a story and nothing else.

Larramie said...

A love of books came from being read to by my parents and I still believe nothing can compare to snuggling with Mommy and/or Daddy, while listening to them tell you a wondrous story. And it becomes even better once you start recognizing the words! That's when I began reading and have never stopped.

So is that era of parent/child bonding gone? If true, the country is faced with more problems than its lack of readers.

As for an immediate solution to the problem: Give Dad a book for Father's Day!

And thank you, Lisa, for the new category of Literary Criticism. All the links appear tempting.

Eileen said...

My parents were big readers so I don't remember when I started- but I do remember Salem's Lot by King was the first book I checked out of the "adult" section. Since then my reading tastes have varied, but I can't imagine not having a book on the go

Eileen said...

My parents were big readers so I don't remember when I started- but I do remember Salem's Lot by King was the first book I checked out of the "adult" section. Since then my reading tastes have varied, but I can't imagine not having a book on the go

Lisa said...

I have to apologize for being lazy the first time I posted this because I didn't include the initial source of this issue, so I went back and edited this to include the hyperlinks to Eileen Cook's original post and also Seize a Daisy (Larramie always leads me to good places) website because I almost fell over when I saw what a commotion she started -- in a good way!


What a great story about your father's recommendation. I'm not sure when my father and I started recommending books to each other - I was in my 20's by then, but discussing books was always a really unique thing he and I shared. Now I have the same experience with my grown son and it's really nice. Don't get me wrong about my book choices. It's not all Dante's Inferno and Beowulf! I am particular about what I want to read, but there is such a variety of incredible books that are both literary in style, yet still pleasurable and entertaining that I can fit the tougher reads in every few books.


I don't know if that kind of activity has fallen by the wayside. I do know that a lot more kids watch videos and TV before going to bed than don't. Whether parents read to kids or share books with their children, it's such a great way to find common ground, especially in times when there might not be much of that. Do check out the Lit Bloggers -- I spent a few hours this weekend and it was pretty intense, but I have added several new titles to my Amazon Wish List after reading some fascinating reviews. I especially like Conversational Reading.


You rock! Thank you for getting this conversation started and thank you Larramie for guiding me to Eileen's post! I read Salem's Lot in high school and I was alone in an old New England farmhouse -- riveted -- when the space heater in the room mysteriously came on all by itself. I was freaked but I tried to ignore it. 10 or 15 minutes later it turned off by itself. Now I was really scared. It was the 70s and I'd never seem a space heater with an thermostat before! I also slept with the lights on in my first apartment for a week straight while I read The Shining.

Shauna Roberts said...

My father regularly took me to our tiny township library to check out books. When I had outgrown the little children's books, he helped me pick out books from the older section, including a detective series about Freddy the Pig (a pig who dressed like Sherlock Holmes and solved mysteries) that he had read when he was little.

My aunt (his sister) was an even bigger influence. She gave us children books for every birthday and Christmas. She was a librarian and later a writer and chose a wide variety of books to expose us to the wider world beyond Beavercreek, Ohio.

Today, I try to serve as the same influence for my nieces and nephews.

Patti said...

i, too, was grounded during a large chunk of my youth. had i not had books, well, i can't even imagine. plus, my father was a writer and we were always talking about words. words were like my baseball and football (yep, one of those girls)...always on my mind.

books allowed me to figure things out in my time and in my way. the written word was my blessing...still is.

Lisa said...


I can't believe I never heard of Freddie the Pig, but apparently the series has been reissued and there are 26 books! Looks like a classic I can get my granddaughter started on. Thanks for introducing me. It must have been great having a librarian in the family!


Nothing like a good thick book to get you through being grounded over a long weekend, huh? ;-) How exciting that your father was a writer -- and that he shared that part of himself with you. Growing up with a writer, hmm, what an interesting idea for a post. Maybe one day you'll tell us more.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

I can't remember not reading--as a kid, I used to wake up early so I could read before my mom came in to wake me up for school. I just loved all the worlds out there. I didn't always read 'good" books, but I was always reading. Getting my own library card rocked! I read to my kids, we have a house filled with books . . . but they don't love reading the way I do. i hope as they get older (they're in college now) they'll turn to books more (that's how it worked with my brother). I always give books as gifts.

As a former English teacher, I was always trying to turn kids on to books. . . wish I had the tried and true formula.

Therese said...

I am a book hound and always have been; my early years' reading list looks very much like yours. :)

I can't think of a thing I haven't done to promote the joys of reading to my sons--have read to them and with them, have made libraries and bookstores as familiar as grocery stores and gas stations, have given books as gifts, etc. And yet, only one of them is a book reader. The other is a magazine browser (but at least those magazines include US News and World Report and National Geographic!

The one who reads books is also an avid video and computer-game player, so I don't believe there's a full causal connection between access to such entertainment and a dearth of book lovers. I do believe that parents who don't read fail there kids by not promoting reading as an attractive option.

Eileen came up with some fun ideas for expanding readership. Thanks for pointing us to her posts.

Therese said...

oops, make that "...parents who don't read fail their kids..."

Where's an editor when you need one? :)

Yellow said...

I read kids books when I was a kid, but I really started reading in the early summer when I was 15/16 instead of studying for exams. Banished to my room for 3 hours study, tucking into a book was great. Then I switched schools at 16 which meant 2 trains each way, and it was then that I discovered the science/fantasy section in the library - Harry Harrison, Tanith Lee, Michael Moorcock.
Later, I got friends to make me reading lists of stuff they loved, and widened my tastes that way. I can still walk inot a bookshop, and if nothing inspires me, ask a total stranger that I like the look of to recommend a book, and I'll buy it without reading the back page spoilers. (I hate back page spoilers). It's usually a £5 gamble which tends to pay off.
I hit a turning point when I joined a local reading group and was asked to recommend books. I found there were books which I'd read at certain turning points of my life, which I will re read again & again to relive certain memories & feelings, but which aren't particularly 'good' books in themselves (Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee, My Enemy The Queen by Victoria Holt). I may be buried or cremated with those books, but I'd never suggest that my now-middle-aged peers read them and find anything earth shattering in there :) They were of a time when I was of an age, and I'm sure you'll appreciate what I mean.

Lisa said...


I was hoping to hear from you from both your perspective as the mother of boys and as a former English teacher. It's kind of strange because the pattern I'm seeing is that most girls love to read and most younger boys don't, necessarily. The really odd thing about that is that most of the Lit Bloggers I've run across and probably the majority of newspaper book reviewers are men. I think men still tend to read less than women do, but even in the minority their voices are more often heard and I think more work written by male authors is seriously reviewed than work by female authors. I'll have to look into that some more...


That's pretty interesting. My son reads quite a bit too and he's also an avid gamer. Out of curiosity, did you steer him toward any particular genre initially? What does he tend to read now?


I completely appreciate what you mean. There was a post recently at Jungle Red about the pitfalls and rewards of recommending books to people. It's a joy when someone connects to a book you love, but can be disappointing when the reader doesn't like it. You win the prize in my book for bravery though. I'll bet you've run across some unexpected gems by trusting recommendations by total strangers. I might have to try that -- by the way, it's nice to have you back :)

Therese said...

I read all the little kid classics to both boys--e.g. Winnie the Pooh, James Herriot--plus tons of Dr. Seuss and a huge variety of storybooks. Also fairy tales and kid-friendly poetry.

Daniel started out reading the usual first-reader books, then by his own interests moved into kid's fantasy--Brian Jacques and all the Harry Potter books. He's still primarily a SF/F fan (loves Ender's Game and Hilari Bell books) but has edged into mainstream a bit, if you can call Michael Crichton mainstream. He also likes Vampire stories.

He's got a real mind for editing/criticism, which I hope he'll develop as he gets older (he's almost 14 now). He's analytical (like his mother) and these days favors RPGs like Warcraft.

Lisa said...

I'm so old and unhip I had to Google RPG and Warcraft. Just in case anyone else is out of the loop, that's Role Playing Game and Warcraft is one of them. If he's only 13 and he's reading Michael Crichton he's probably going to like reading a great variety. Maybe the reason YA novels for boys seem to be in demand is because there's not much to segue them from children's books to adult fiction. Could be a good sign. Thanks for sharing!

Patti said...

eldorado! sorry about the must have been the lone person in a car that day. the cops were probably all like "hey, it's a real live honest to goodness person...let's stop 'em and give 'em a ticket! yeeha!"

i love that you can visualize where i am going few know this area.

Mia King said...

I remember the first book that I read that made me think that I wanted to write when I grew up. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. I proceeded to inhale all of her subsequent books. The library was always a boon for me - we are regulars at our cow town library here, too, in hopes that my 6 year old daughter will catch the bug as well.

My parents didn't read to me a lot, but we did have a lot of books in our house - even if they weren't relevant to me, I think growing up in the company of books can make an impact. If you naturally see others referring and appreciating books, it becomes part of your experience too. One can only hope!

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf