Making Readers for Life

- by C.L. Wilson

“Reading is boring!” 

I’ve heard this refrain from (regrettably) so many people through the years, both adults and children (even my own!).  And, at least in the case of my children, the phrase “Reading is boring!” is usually accompanied in short order by a surly, “This book is stupid.  I don’t know why we have to read this stupid, boring book!”

As an avid reader—and a writer—hearing people diss my favorite pastime (and my livelihood) causes a unique sort of pain in my heart.  I’m not sure what hurts more—children condemning reading to the rubbish heap, or adults doing so.  I think adults, because there’s a much smaller chance of overcoming a dislike that has been ingrained over a period many years—and because adults have considerably fewer leisure hours than children, and are thus far less likely to experiment with a pastime they already associate with boredom.  And adults who hate reading are unlikely to encourage their children to become ravenous readers.

But why do so many people dislike reading?  (And let’s face it, far more people watch a movie than read the book from which it was made.)

I contend that most people don’t actually dislike reading; they just never learned to love it.  Or, rather, they never found that book—that one special story—that zapped their minds, hearts, and imagination like a lightning bolt and sucked them in so completely they couldn’t tear themselves away, couldn’t keep from turning pages to find out what happened next, couldn’t put the book down, and when they reach the end, couldn’t stop combing the bookstore and library shelves looking for more stories that would make them feel the same way. 

For many (even most?) people, when it comes to defining which sorts of fiction are classified as “boring,” literary classics invariably land near the top of the heap.  (You should have heard the ripping Will Shakespeare got over Romeo and Juliet from my teenage daughter.)  Remembering some of the material I had to read in high school, I understand why.  Many of the works presented to students as “required reading” have little or no relevance to the students’ lives or interests (and some are written in language so archaic they’re indecipherable without footnotes to provide translation and historical context).  For children who are not surrounded by books at home, is it any wonder they assume reading is more work than fun, and is therefore something to be avoided?  I’m not saying classic literature is bad.  I’m an English major.  I love books, including many classic literary novels (although I swear I’ll claw my eyes out before I ever read Nathaniel Hawthorne again). I’m just saying much of it no longer speaks to a modern audience or to the topics that interest and concern them.   And when it comes to current literature, the complaint I hear most often is “it’s depressing”.

And therein lies a problem.  The primary purpose of any written work is to communicate, but a book cannot communicate if readers won’t read it—or can’t understand, enjoy or connect with the book if they do read it.  

To make matters worse, many of the books that do connect with large numbers of readers (popular fiction) are often dismissed by the literary community (including other genre authors) as being of little or no value.  Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight books have turned millions of teens into avid readers, and yet hardly a day goes by that I don’t read some slam against her books.   I read the first book.  I enjoyed it.  My two daughters read the first book when I was done with it, and they promptly both demanded I buy them each their own copy of the subsequent books, so they didn’t have to share.  My middle child is now a ravenous reader–my pocket book whimpers every time we enter a bookstore–and if my eldest weren’t neck deep in IB homework, she’d be reading more fiction too.  As it is, since summer, she’s read the Kite Runner, and A Thousand Splendid Suns, and wants to read The Lovely Bones when I’m done with it.  

Here, I’m going to put in a little plug for romance novels.  I’ve read romance novels since I was a teen.  I love them.  Yes, there are some I don’t love, but the ones I do love are just delightful.  I know a number of people (my younger sister, my best friend’s dyslexic brother, several others) who hated reading until they discovered romance novels.  The fast paced, emotional read sucked them in, kept them invovled in the story, kept them turning pages.   Many of them have gone on to read many other kinds of books, but romance was the genre that turned them into avid readers.  Thriller author Tess Gerritsen wrote a blog in defense of the romance novels she wrote at the start of her career that touches on the subject of reading for pleasure.  In the blog, she coins the phrase “legume literature” (or as I prefer to call them, “broccoli books”)—books that people don’t really want to read, but feel like they must because those books are “good for them” (ie, approved as “distinguished literature” by the literati).   In the blog, Ms. Gerritsen also talks about meeting a reader who had almost quit reading altogether because she had “forgotten that books are supposed to be fun!” 

This makes me sad.  I’m a firm believer that reading should be a pleasure, and not a guilty one.  Whether literature, popular fiction, poetry, graphic novels, there’s room enough in this world to appreciate a wide variety of reading selections and to celebrate each genre for what it does best.  And one of the things genre fiction does best is teach people that reading can be fun (not boring!), and that helps make readers for life. 

Question of the day: What was the book that turned you into an avid reader?  The first book you read that made you go “Wow!” and want to reread it again as soon as you hit the last page (or at least reread the good bits)?  If you were someone who disliked or struggled to get through any book, what was the first book that made you want to keep turning the pages?

16 comments

  1. Cheryl, I think it had to be The Black Stallion by Walter Farley. I was young and horse crazy – course the only thing to change with time is the young! I could not read his books fast enough! I have always loved escaping into another time or world and gave that same love of reading to my daughter and she is now passing it on to her children. My oldest grandson is an avid Goosebumps reader! You are so right about tayloring the early reading experience to something that interests the reader, children do not stick with something that bores them to tears! As for the future just keep writing the marvelous, compelling, stories that you do. I have worn out the first copies of your books and have had to order second copies! You Rock!

  2. Oh, I remember The Black Stallion. I read that in my horsey stage…along with Misty of Chincoteague and Stormy: Misty’s Foal. :)

    Despite being someone who had read–and pretty voraciously–since before I could read on my own, the “Wow” books were (a) Tolken’s LOTR (I didn’t re-read it again and again, but the whole premise of the story fired my imagination so strongly that wrote my very first fantasy manuscript), (b) McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, and (c) Kathleen Woodiwiss’s Shanna.

    Rhi, my ravenous reader, loved the Goosebump books too. At the moment, she’s all over the Vampire Diaries, PC & Kristin Cast’s books, and a couple others. She’s got the bug bad – notes release dates and insists we go ON THAT DAY to get the books :)

    And thanks so much for the kind words on my books. I’m so thrilled you enjoy them!

  3. When I was 12 I read my mother’s copy of FOREVER AMBER. Though the book shocked me, it had a lasting impact on me.
    Years later, I became a voracious reader. After I put my two baby sons to bed at night, I picked up a book. I was entraced by the historical novels of Jan Westcott, and my favorite was THE WALSINGHAM WOMAN.
    In the late 70′s I read a book by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss entitled THE WOLF AND THE DOVE. I immediately knew I could write this kind of book that combined romance and history. I’m still at it.

  4. This is a good article. I have a book somewhere on how to become a professional reader. Since we see many books on how to become a professional writer I have always found this book fascinating.

    I always have a hard time putting down a Jack Higgins book. Yes, I love thrillers. I just heard he might be the master of ceremonies next year for the International thriller writers convention.

    Also, since I have a shot now at obtaining his editor I’m rapidly rereading his books.

    I’ll admit I start many books and don’t finish them. But it is the ones that refuse to be put down that I always remember.

    Thanks for this great article and very timely.

    Johnny (Sir John) Ray
    http://www.sirjohn.org

  5. And Virginia, you are at it so well :)

    My mom had Forever Amber. I’ve seen the film on that one but never read the books. I snuck her Angelique series by the husband & wife team, Sergeanne Golon. (Adored them!)

  6. I know this sounds corny but I fell in love with the Nancy Drew series. When I read all of those I read the Hardy Boys. I loved the Black Stallion and Black Beauty, too, but I’ve always loved the mysteries. I graduated to thrillers and horror, and later discovered romance and fantasy. Needless to say, I enjoy a very wide spectrum of books.

  7. I’m like Sharron, I grew up first reading Trixie Bleden and then Nancy Drew. My aunt had every HQ book written and after reading the first one (so sorry I don’t remember who the author was), I was hooked. Then in jr. high we had to read a book from a list. They were all hugh books and none of them sounded interesting at all. I picked The Good Earth and omg, it was amazing. Imagine finding out in the 8th grade there was a love story inside a book that was required to read. :)

  8. I grew up in a family of avid readers and had thought of reading as fun even before I could do it. But to the kids I grew up with who were NOT being raised among readers, THEIR exposure to reading and their understanding of reading entailed was completely defined by book after book after book that, I, an avid young reader, found it sheer torture to wade through, ages 11 to 18: Silas Marner; The Mayor of Casterbridge; Ethan Frome; The Pearl; etc.

    Though I was a voracious reader throughout my youth, I consistently hated my literature homework.

    And then, having done THAT to generations of Americans, people are mystified that so few Americans read books. Might as well be mystified that, as adults, very few adult women choose to don gym uniforms, play touch-football, and shower in public.

  9. Cinderella was the first book I read that sent me back to the library for more. I was five or six and I walked to the library by myself. Those days are dead and gone.

    Connie

  10. I read all my mom’s Reader’s Digest Condensed Books! I was probably in elementary school. I esp remember Nicholas & Alexandra – it was my first historical read and from there I read all my mom’s Jean Plaidys and Victoria Holts. Then it was the Brontes and Margaret Mitchell (see a trend?!) so when I wrote my first romance at 16, it was a historical. I disappear into the story and feel the emotions, see the action, hear them, love them, etc….I feel that way when I write – if I didn’t, I don’t think I would enjoy writing. If it weren’t that my mom and grandma were extreme readers, I probably wouldn’t have the bug. My daughter (11) also read all 4 Twilights and when she commented how much she loves the last one because of the “love scene” I told her, congratulations – you are now a romance reader!!!!

  11. Sharron said:

    I know this sounds corny but I fell in love with the Nancy Drew series

    not corny at all! I read them all, too :)

    Vicki, I think I’ve read The Good Earth, but it’s been too long for me to remember the details.

  12. Laura said

    I, an avid young reader, found it sheer torture to wade through, ages 11 to 18: Silas Marner; The Mayor of Casterbridge; Ethan Frome; The Pearl; etc.

    Though I was a voracious reader throughout my youth, I consistently hated my literature homework.

    And then, having done THAT to generations of Americans, people are mystified that so few Americans read books.

    LOL. You said it better than I did :)

    Connie – I remember walking more than a mile home–through the woods!–in Bethesda, Maryland (a suburb of Washington DC. I live out in the sticks 15 miles east of a small Florida gulf coast town, and I’m only now starting to let my kids walk home from the bus stop! (And I loved Cinderella – never tire of reading or watching all its the various iterations – including the movie version with Drew Barrymore and Angelica Huston)

  13. Anna – your mom sounds like my mom! Every house we ever lived in, we left with at least one room that had a complete wall of floor-to-ceiling bookcases. We used to call Mom “The Walking Encyclopedia”. She reads everything–across all genres–and retains a decidedly frightening amount of what she reads!

    i read bunches of the RD Condensed books too, as well as the Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy’s :)

  14. I, too, loved the Trixie Beldon books, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, however, the book that captured my romantic heart forever was A Time for Tenderness by Betty Cavanna. She was a beautiful, prolific writer and read every book I could find of hers.

  15. I am one of those people who likes all types of books. The only thing I like in the books I read is a happy ending. I have enough reality in my life that I want to get away from reality. All people are different. I had to kidd a few of my friends into ready my books. There are some people who just don’t like to read. The one thing that entices them is that all my books have a piece of my own life in them. I’m 82 years old. As an engineer I’ve had a lot of experience. The romances in my books are woven in with exciting adventure. My wife is one of those people who hates to read. She has read only one of my books. that was because she was interested in a romance I had before I met her. She like many people is very active. She just can’t sit still that long. My books also covers the whole field, from science fiction to romance to christian novels but they all have a passionate romance woven in. I don’t worry about the people who don’t like to read. There are plenty of people whio do. I enjoy reading because books take me to places that I would otherwise never visit.

  16. I think my experience mimics Laura Resnick’s. Reading was like talking … I don’t remember when I started. I remember Nancy Drew & Trixie Belden; I was deep into my mom’s Agatha Christie collection in the 4th grade; I discovered science fiction in the 5th grade; I’d exhausted the library options of anything interesting by the 7th grade; and in retrospect I’m grateful books were as cheap during my childhood as they were so my allowance could cover my burgeoning book addiction. I had bookshelves in my bedroom loaded with books by the time I was 13.

    I disliked most of the literature I was forced to read for school. And I read a LOT of literature in high school and college. I preferred Shakespeare to most of the rest, and I think it’s because he wasn’t writing literature; he was writing plays designed to entertain the masses.

    I think reading has to be nurtured in children by their parents before the schools get ahold of them. Certainly, I am a passionate reader IN SPITE OF my English classes, not because of them.