Brains On Fire: On Kids and Reading

Back in December 2007, the novelist James Patterson became a hero of mine.

Patterson wrote an open letter to his son in Parade magazine that resonated strongly with me, and said some things I wanted to say to my own son, Nathaniel:

I have something grand to tell you—not dreaded advice or a boring lecture, just something cool as ice that I want to share. It’s a gift from your old dad—maybe the best one I’ll ever give you. Jack, I want you to become a passionate reader for life, and not because you have to or because it might make you more successful or get you into Harvard or Stanford. I’m talking about real passion here, like the way you currently go crazy over The Simpsons and The Incredibles. It’s true—books can make you crazy—but in a good way.

I was a carnivorous reader as a kid. I learned to read before I started school, and read damn near anything I got in my hands. I read encyclopedias, textbooks, tons and tons of science fiction and fantasy, mysteries, horror, comics, classics. In elementary school, I had a teacher go to bat for me against a librarian who had restricted me to the youngest section of the library because I had started reading the stuff for the older kids (kudos to the teacher, and what the hell was that librarian thinking?). In seventh grade I had an old olive drab military laundry bag full of paperbacks which I dragged behind me at school (that, and other reasons, sort of restricted me from the social upper crust for my developmental years). I read and read and read.

I’d of course hoped my son would take after me in that regard. And he is extremely gifted verbally, was able to converse fluently before he was a year old, and is a swift, sophisticated reader. But reading is not a preferred activity for him. We’ve always had him read at least half an hour a day, so he plows steadily through quite a few books in a year (and reads books on an adult level without difficulty), but as much as he likes reading, in his spare time, it’s not one of the activities that draws him. So I can relate to Patterson when he writes:

I believe that getting you to read is my responsibility, my job. In fact, it’s the responsibility of all parents, grandparents and teachers. That’s why I’m doing my homework now and searching for some terrific books that I know you’ll love. Why? Because, Jack, with all due respect, you probably won’t do it yourself; neither will most other kids.

I always wonder how much is a difference in inclination, and how much is the environment my son’s growing up in. His mom reads, but is a far more casual reader than I am, so he might take after her on this. On the other hand, he does share my verbal ability. Would I have been as obsessive a reader if I’d had computers, video games, TV with more than three or four channels, DVDs, easy access to a community outside the dinky suburban subdivision with no public transportation where we lived?

I don’t know, but I suspect those things would have drawn me away from my beloved books to some large degree. After all, they do now; I still read a lot by most standards, but not nearly what I did as a kid, or even as much as I did ten years ago.

Still, I stand firm as a stalwart reader, and my home is a reader’s home. Cicero wrote “A room without books is like a body without a soul,” and my rooms are very soulful. I’m here as an example, and my place is a temple to the sacred tome. When he feels like reading something, he’s got no problem finding something to read. I hope some day soon his brain will not only light up but catch fire and drive him blissfully and passionately into the world of books in a way he doesn’t yet imagine.

In the meantime, like James Patterson, I’ll keep finding, and writing, books for him. There are few things as important for me to share.

Patterson’s letter can be read at this link. He has also gone even further in his desire to see not only his own son become a passionate reader, but everyone else’s kids as well, by building the website, where parents can find recommendations for high quality books to share with their kids, whatever their ages. It’s a great site, and I recommend it highly.

Nathaniel, Two Years Old

Nathaniel, when he was two

2 comments on “Brains On Fire: On Kids and Reading

  1. […] Few Great Books In my previous post, “Brains on Fire: On Kids and Reading,” I recommended an article by James Patterson on that very topic. At the end of that article, […]

  2. wildcatteacher says:

    Here’s more on the reading crisis

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