The revolutionary act of reading

An old post I thought I’d republish

I’ve been reading ever since I remember. I could read before I entered kindergarten, and I’m told I read to the other kids in my class. I read the backs of shampoo bottles, I read before bedtime, I read on long car trips, even as my father admonished me to get my nose out of a book and “look at the beautiful scenery.” I was a weird kid, and at times, books were my only friends.

I was trading book recommendations with one of my new professors this semester who kindly obliged my interest, but said offhand, “I doubt you’ll have much time for extra reading this semester.” “Lady,” I thought, “you sure don’t know me yet.” Today I checked out two books from the library by the new guy I’m supposed to do a seminar on in her class weeks from now — Dan P. McAdams. I like to get to know my theorists. I also grabbed a stack of other things, some of which I probably won’t get around to before they’re due, but I’ll get around to at least a few. Reading is to me what swimming is to fish.

I spent a good portion of my childhood perusing the secondhand books at The Librairie, a tiny bookshop in the French Quarter, a block from my grandparents’ house. I brought in old books for trade, and white-haired, red-suspendered Fred tallied up my credits and marked the total on a bookmark. I knew the shelves by heart, and spotted new arrivals instantly. When Faber in Fahrenheit 451 said, “Do you know that books smell like nutmeg or some spice from a foreign land?” maybe it was the smoke from Fred’s pipe that had saturated the pages, but I knew precisely what he was talking about.

So no wonder it broke my heart when @johntspencer tweeted today that one of his students told him:

“I’ve never been to a book store. The only book stores around here are adult ones.”

It’s not like me to go to the verge of tears over a tweet, but I can’t imagine the poverty of a life that isn’t saturated with and surrounded by books.

I don’t know how to make it happen, but I envision two things:

An organization of book buddies (like Big Brothers and Big Sisters) that collects gift cards, used bookstore credits, and just plain donations, and takes kids who wouldn’t get the chance otherwise to the store to pick out their own books, and

A group of booklovers who take the time out to hang with kids and their respective stacks of books on a Saturday afternoon and model a love of reading. Imagine all those fingers moving across the page, and whispers of help with difficult words. How many adults do we know who lament that they simply don’t have the time to read? Let’s make the time, and let’s share it.

Create a culture of reading for pleasure. Forget about the stereotype of the weird loner kid who always has his or her nose in a book; let’s make reading a communal act. It requires no special tools, no money as long as you have a library card, and no special class or socioeconomic standing. The joys of reading are theoretically available to just about everyone. Let’s make it so.