Paradise will be a kind of library

The other day I asked my first-year honors seminar how many of them were read to as kids by their parents. All 20 hands went up. I asked another 100-level class and only half as many hands went into the air. Now don't get me wrong. The honors seminar is not a room full of violin-playing, Shakespeare-spouting math whizzes. They are just above average students who were invited into the honors program mostly on the strength of their ACT reading scores. Even so, the difference between the two classes was striking.

Indeed a mountain of evidence exists about the long-term benefits of reading aloud to your kids when they are young. Unfortunately, study after study shows that young people read less and less. We seem to be slowly devolving back into an oral culture or perhaps transitioning into visual culture. My wife and I read to our son from the start (practically in utero) and he's developed a taste for it. Last Saturday afternoon, for instance, he asked if we could just lay around and read for a while. So we both sprawled on the bed in mom and dad's room and read for over an hour (me with Livy and him with Franny K. Stein, Mad Scientist).

I do often wonder how I ever came to be a reader. My father was a high school drop out. I can't ever recall him reading anything but ads for used cars in the paper. My mother was a secretary and read nothing but trashy romance novels (Love's Sweet Savage Surrender!) whose covers were semi-rape scenes and whose plots she couldn't recall a week later. Ours was not a literary household. Nevertheless, I read a lot as a kid. I particularly liked short stories. I would go to the library and bring home big anthologies like The Fifty Greatest American Short Stories, which would be filled with gems from Twain, Poe, Melville, Hawthorne and even O'Henry. My parents didn't encourage or discourage me about reading. Heck, I don't think they even noticed.

A long time ago I happened upon a curious fact. It seems Eudora Welty and Richard Wright both grew up at about the same time in Jackson, Mississippi. Welty was surrounded by books as a child. There was even a library in her home and both her parents loved literature and discussed books regularly. Wright, on the other hand, came from a broken family, went to segregated schools, and had an emotional train wreck of a childhood. He wasn't even allowed to use the public library. He had to forge a signature from a white employer just to check out books. Now you look at Welty and you say, well, of course she became this wonderful author. Look at her childhood environment. But you look at Wright and it makes no sense.

I look at my childhood reading habits and think the same thing. I may have been a lot better off than Wright, but it still makes no sense.


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