As a child, my dad read The Hobbit to me every year.
Honestly, I don’t remember much about these moments. I am sure the reading aloud was slow, even painstakingly slow due to my constant interruption with questions that were sometimes about the story, but more often about ice cream for dinner, the weird noise coming from the refrigerator, or if I could have a pony. Yet, in those moments, a love for the kind of adventure that can only be found in a world not your own, hidden deep inside the dog-eared pages of a dusty, long-loved book, was birthed.
Reading The Hobbit each year wasn’t a new practice for my dad, but a decades-old one, and because he loved books, the tone he used when he spoke about wizards, hobbit-holes, and setting out on adventure was filled with inflection and raised eyebrows. I caught his excitement. I was falling in love with books. I often wonder if that’s true about reading books—no matter your age. If it isn’t learned or engrained, but caught, like a good belly-laugh or a face-stretching yawn.
Because I caught a love for books, instructed reading in school, which by its premise should be forced and dutiful, was a joy. Page-turners lurked under my desk as I tried to sneak in a few more paragraphs while the teacher talked about all the useless math processes and scientific methods.
I wrote short stories in my free time. Words were life to me. They were an escape from the everyday, and a respite from the big trauma and the little crises a child faces. Books were often my coping mechanism, my safe place, and my dear friend.
Fifth grade hit, and I read The Giver for the first time. This was the first time a story made me feel real pain. My legs ached as I read about the slice of a sled’s cold metal on the shins. Then Chickamauga by Ambrose Bierce did the same. I was there. I was seeing the soldiers, the lost child, the bunny he followed away from his home. It’s not a happy story, but it was seared into my mind like a calf’s branding burned into his tough flesh. It has been decades since I’ve read this story, but I can tell it today as if I just finished its pages.
I could go on—CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (really), John Keats’ poetry. Reading good books made me crave more good books, like my hand was in that potato chip bag that refuses to allow you to eat just one. Through assignments and also through the great power of walking into a library of wall-to-wall books and having the great opportunity of taking whichever books home I wanted, I learned a love for reading, and even more so a love for reading great books that really moved me.
My family didn’t set out to make me a reader. They simply provided me with opportunities to fall in love with books, to fall in love with new places and new people and new experiences through the vehicle of a good book, to answer their questions about what I was reading and what I loved about it.
My love for reading was caught. Now, I caught it much more strongly than my brother who was born and raised in the same family and environment. There’s something to be said about a predisposition for words, which I’ve always had.
But, I credit my love for reading to my parents giving me opportunity after opportunity to love books, to catch their love for books, to sneak a tiny peek at the expansive world inside a book, brimming with adventure, new ideas, and learning to be had.
In many ways, I relate to this quote from CS Lewis:
My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them. There were books in the study, books in the drawing-room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interests, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not. Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves. I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass.
What I learned from the way I caught my parents’ love for books and how I seek to give my kids ample exposure so that they might “catch” it as well can be summed up as this:
Read to your kids. Read them books above their head. Read them books with only pictures and no words. Tell them stories you make up, even if they are terrible. Ask them to tell you stories (that will certainly be terrible).
Tell them tales of heroes and dragons and kings and jungles and villages so unlike their own. Engage your child’s imagination, not with the newest movie or cartoon, but with the beauty of a book where your child must not only be an observer of the story, but a participant.
Then, you’ll look at your daughter or son’s eyes when they are handed a book and you’ll see that same light in their eyes and hear that inflection in their voice. You’ll see their eyebrows raise as they tell you of the harrowing adventure and shocking twists of a story. Your child is a lover of books, just like you.