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Raising a Reader
Confessions of an Obsessed Book Collector

Together with our daughters, ages 9 and 11, I did something the other day that took a long time: I counted our books.

I did this by going around to every bookshelf in our house, counted the books on that shelf, and put the tally on a piece of paper.  Next bookshelf.  Next bookshelf.  Next.  Next.  Next

Took hours.

Despite that, I had to count rather quickly, because our books are always in flux.  They get moved from place to place, they’re left piled on tables and floors, they get carried outside and forgotten (and hopefully remembered before the next rainstorm).  Plus we’re always buying more.  So if I don’t count quickly, my count is way off.

My tally?  5225 books as of last Tuesday.

You see, my husband and I love books.  We love to read them, we love to look at them, we love seeing shelves of them all over the house.

We don’t collect historical first editions (we can’t afford it; plus what good are delicate first editions for general reading?).  Nor do we often buy books new.  The vast majority of our books came from library sales over the years.

We own books covering a wide range of subjects: history, art, self-help and psychology, politics, economics, farming and gardening (we live on a homestead), how-to’s, classics, reference, science, architecture, interior design, children’s, and lots and lots of novels.

We don’t obsess over “superior” literature.  Our books are eclectic, ranging from cartoon collections (i.e. Foxtrot, Calvin & Hobbes, Baby Blues, The Far Side, Bizarro…)  to, yes, superior literature.  I long, for instance, to possess the Harvard Classics.

Recently I picked up 27 books out of a 54-volume set called Great Books of the Western World from a library sale, for the grand price of $1 each.

Do we read these types of books cover to cover?  Of course not.  But I can pluck Sir Isaac Newton’s “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy” (first written in 1686) off the shelf and delve into its mysterious pages that contain such sentences as “Wherefore if one rectilinear figure is to be transformed into another, we need only transfer the intersections of the right lines of which the first figure consists, and through the transferred intersections to draw right lines in the new figure.”

Do I understand this?  Heck no, but that’s beside the point.  What I admire is the critical importance Newton’s work played in modern-day mathematics, physics, astronomy, and a whole host of other sciences.  And Newton – Newton himself! – wrote it.  It’s a link to history.  To me, that’s a worthwhile book to own, especially if it cost only a dollar.

There are very few questions that arise during our dinnertime conversations that can’t be answered by darting to a bookshelf, withdrawing a volume, and consulting it.  When we can’t answer a question (horrors!) by consulting one of our own books, then we often end up buying a book that will answer the question.  Just on principle, you see.  We do stuff like this all the time.  We are such a weird family.

For Christmas this past year, most of the presents the kids received were books.  A complete Chronicles of Narnia (our old set disintegrated from use); a couple of supporting books on Narnia; Piratology; Fairyopolis; Flyte; a two-book boxed set of The Cay and Island of the Blue Dolphins; and a book called Stars & Planets (our oldest daughter loves astronomy).  I also bought a book for my husband called Bored of the Rings (a parody of The Lord of the Rings).  My husband’s gift to me was an Amazon.com gift certificate – bliss.

So instead of owning 5225 books, I guess we now own 5240 books.  And counting.

Our kids are always asking (begging, whining, requesting, pleading, beseeching, imploring, etc.) for books on special occasions and even non-occasions.  Unless the price is prohibitive, we often give in.  After all, as I’m fond of pointing out, it’s not as if they’re asking to put Britney Spears posters on their bedroom walls.  I can handle kids who want books.

Recently I went to a local library sale and was thrilled to find stacks of wonderful finds.  I bought so many that the librarians simply charged me a flat fee of $75 and more or less told me to help myself (this was after I’d accumulated six boxes of books already).  I came home and scattered our new purchases across the living room floor while we pawed happily through them.  The books remained on the floor for a week while we stepped around the pile and plucked books out here and there to dip into.

After a week of having them in a messy pile, I needed to clean house and vacuum, so I gathered all the books and put them on the sofa.  Then I went around gathering all the other loose books cluttering up surfaces and tables and counters and windowsills, and piled them on the sofa also.  By the time I was done, the sofa was so piled with books that it almost made a tableau of artful beauty – Still Life with Books – though of course the result was that we couldn’t use the sofa until I shelved everything.

Our books are not for show; they are for reading.  Some are removed from a shelf in order to consult and answer a question, then laid aside.  Others are removed from a shelf and partially read, put down, read some more, put down, and read some more until the book is completed.  Then it is put down somewhere yet again until I come along, grumbling, and shelve it.  Again.

There are times when I look at all the books in our house, scattered untidily in piles or stacks, heaped across every possible surface, and I want to lose my temper at the messiness of it all.  But then I stand back and try to look at it through a stranger’s eyes, and I see…readers.  These books are stacked and heaped and scattered because we are using them.

Okay, I guess I can deal with that.

But enough about our book passion.  How does all this contribute toward raising our children as readers?

Elementary.  Monkey-see, monkey-do.

Children will rarely become passionate readers if you yourself are not a reader.  If the weekly extent of your literary consumption is the TV Guide, then I’m afraid your kids will learn to read only so they can understand the TV Guide.  If you are disdainful or even contemptuous about reading (yes, I’ve met a few), then your kids will feel the same way.  If you not only don’t, but actively refuse, to have books in the house (I’ve met a few of those types too), then your kids will follow suit and not value reading.

Here are some of the things we’ve done over the years to encourage an appreciation for books and reading in our girls:

(1) We don't have television reception.  The kids can watch a movie in the evening before bedtime, but they only take this option about three times a week.

(2) We never restrict the girls from reading in bed.  They literally have piles of books in, on, and under their beds (where we occasionally have to do some deep sea fishing for an overdue library book).  They think this is a spiffy idea because it means they can stay up later, so going to bed is something to look forward to, and reading becomes a treat.  It’s not uncommon to come into their bedroom, lift a book off their chest because they’ve fallen asleep reading, and turn out the light.

(3) Of course when the girls were younger, we read to them extensively throughout the day and at bedtime.  We still do.  Though they are older now, one of my husband’s greatest delights is to spend a half-hour reading before bedtime.  He’s worked his way through the entire The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn, and other great works.

(4) We encourage the pleasurable reading of books rather than making a schoolroom duty out of it.  When the kids were younger, they played with books as if they were toys.  They’d stack them according to size or color, or they’d use them as building blocks for their games.  That’s okay – the day came when they took a peek inside those building blocks and found something interesting.

(5) We decorate our home with books which, you must admit, are lovely, versatile, and useful.  Not to mention good for insulation.

So to make your child a reader, become a reader yourself.  Enjoy books.  Collect books (you’d be surprised how cheap they are at yard sales and library sales).  Build bookshelves (an excellent spend-time-with-your- kids project).  Discuss books, everything from The Cat in the Hat to Dante’s Inferno (both have high literary merit).  Books books books books books.

That’s the path to raising a reader: become one yourself.

And no, you don’t need 5225 books in your house to prove the point.  Er, make that 5240.  And counting.