I’ve always loved reading. I could sit anywhere and read for hours on end. Even as a child with a minimal attention span, somehow a good book always held my attention. I also had special reading spots – one of my favorites involved a 30 minute process of climbing a tree, setting up a hanging swing (something like this one pictured) high up in one of the branches by tying all the various ropes to different branches at the perfect height, jumping to get into this swing, and reading at the perfect spot so I could just barely see the waterfront on the horizon.
But growing up, reading always felt strange, like it was a special privilege, something I could only do in secret, when no one else was around to be burdened it. It was the perfect after-school activity (except when I’d get too into the book and still be in the tree when my mom pulled into the driveway home from work, and now she was angry that I didn’t complete the list of tasks on the kitchen table allocated to keep us kids out of trouble.) It was the perfect night activity (except when I’d still be up and under the covers reading when my dad got home, and now he was angry that I was up past bedtime.) It was the perfect activity for the end of family gatherings, when everyone would naturally gravitate to the living room to watch golf on TV (except when some relative would berate me for “not being an active member of the family.”) It all seems sort of Matilda-ish, looking back on it. If only I also had telekinesis…
The favorite story my parents love to tell is from when I was around 6 or 7 and skeptical of the existence of Santa Claus. So I vowed to stay up all night waiting for him to come down the chimney, reading A Tale of Two Cities. My parents describe this night as one of the biggest inconveniences they’ve experienced raising children. “We had to set alarms, and keep coming downstairs to check if she was sleeping yet! It wasn’t until 4 or 5am when we finally could put the presents around the tree!” You’d think the main point of this story was that their 6 year old was reading Charles Dickens, but no, the punchline is that I finally fell asleep so they could play Santa.
I was taught that reading was time spent unproductively. Every time I was reading at home, I felt self-conscious. Should I be doing something else? Do I have homework or chores or something better I could be doing? Even in college this behavior persisted when I was free from the tractor beam eyes of everyone around me subliminally trying to get me to be more productive. And today, even with a husband who grew up in a family of readers, I still feel the need to continually tell myself, “I am allowed to read a book now. I have earned this privilege.”
Maybe this is what is wrong with America today. Too many kids from working class families who value hard work (most effective via manual labor) and think this is one of the clearest pathways for getting ahead, grew up thinking that reading (intellectual labor?) wasn’t the way out. We grew up in schools where the smart kids were bullied, simply for being smart, where we had to pretend to be dumb to fit in. And we can all see the result with the fake news phenomenon. We are always too busy chopping wood to prepare for another cold winter to think about reading, understanding the world, and appreciating facts and reason.
A Tale of Two Cities… if that’s not foreshadowing, I don’t know what is.