Make Reading Desirable Again
It's time we emphasize the importance of embracing the written word
In Embracing Curiosity, I step away from writing about travel to comment on the bigger journey of life, exploring my faith and politics with curiosity and nuance.
I’ve always been an avid reader.
From the time I learned how to read, I’ve had stacks of books on my to-read pile. I fondly remember those early years of devouring Sweet Valley Twins and The Baby-Sitters Club before moving on The Nancy Drew Case Files and then safe, inspirational fiction by authors such as Janette Oke.
Then I started high school and my English teachers put Literature into my hands. I fell in love with Fahrenheit 451, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Of Mice and Men. I decided I wanted to pass my love of reading and literature onto others and so went to college to become an English teacher. Along the way, my professors exposed me to new worlds and ideas. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening changed me forever as a woman and future wife and mother. Toni Morrison’s Song of Soloman revealed struggles completely outside of my own experience. Reading stopped being about pure entertainment; it was a way to better know myself and the world I was inhabiting.
Of course, there is nothing like teaching high school English to bring home the painful realities of the general view of the value of reading. I entered the classroom 20 years ago believing that I had the tools to convince students to love reading. I started teaching just as students were bringing cell phones into classrooms but well before social media took over all of our lives. My students didn’t want to read and didn't see the value of sitting down with a good book. There are a lot of complex reasons for that, some of which I’ve written about in other places, and they are issues that I have struggled with and fought against for two decades now.
But I still believe it is a fight worth having.
Reading matters. Reading quality content matters. And if we want to shift the tide away from an anti-intellectual movement that embraces lies, misinformation, and harmful and divisive rhetoric, we need to be encouraging more reading in our culture, not less. And not only do we need to encourage more reading, we need to encourage more meaningful reading.
I want to feed my brain, not to confirm what I already think I know or make me angry, but to better understand my world and the other humans that I share it with. That has meant stepping away from my social media in the last month and spending time finishing a couple of books and reading more articles and newsletters. In fact, this newsletter bywas particularly inspiring when I started thinking about the issue of reading.
But again, I know that it isn’t easy.
If there is one thing this busy mom, wife, and teacher knows, it’s that reading takes time. It’s not something that all of us can just stop and do when there are houses that need to be cleaned (which I’m ignoring so I can write this post), people who need to be fed, and jobs that need to be done well. Not everyone can fit four 15-minute Silent Sustained Reading sessions into their week and I don’t take that privilege lightly.I also understand that our reading stamina comes in ebbs and flows. There have been times when I've found it difficult to sit down and read for pleasure. Reading takes time and energy that many of us don't have. But I've worked hard to make it an important part of my life.
So how do I do it? I’m a big believer in audiobooks, which is probably what also got me interested in podcasting because I was already used to listening to people read to me. I listen to audiobooks while driving to and from school, running, doing chores, and walking the dogs. I try to read a few pages every weekend, sitting down to read on the couch while the family watches something, or sneaking in a few pages when we are camping during the summer months. And I’ve also taken to spending less time on traditional social media and more time subscribing to writers on Substack. While most of the writers aren’t publishing books, the long-form content (as opposed to Facebook and Twitter hot takes and Instagram videos), takes five to ten minutes to read and I can consume new content while standing in line at the store or waiting for stuff to cook on the stove. Finally, I have found that reading books of essays are an easy way to feel like I’ve accomplished something in ten to fifteen minutes. Reading a book like John Green’s Anthropocene Reviewed can be both delightful and satisfying and I highly recommend it.
Reading matters and having a culture that reads matters even more. I don’t believe that a single blog post can change the way the vast majority of our citizens see reading, but sometimes it just starts with a handful of people saying the written word, and the quality of that written word, matters.
It’s a place to start.
Some places to start reading on Substack
First, I highly recommend downloading the Substack Reader app. Here is a tutorial on how to use the app. I combined two videos that I put on Instagram reels and put them into a single YouTube video.
If you have “liked” Heather Cox Richardson’s FB page, consider instead subscribing to her Substackand getting that information in your email box instead of social media. If you follow or on Twitter, they can also have Substack letters. In fact, there are a lot of people who I have followed in other media who are now starting Substack newsletters to give them more space to share and reflect away from the algorithms. As with all things, it is the open internet so not every newsletter is quality or even helpful, but there are a lot to choose from and using the Reader App has allowed me to do that reading without clogging up my email inbox.
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But for the love of everything holy, let your kids read graphic novels and whatever nonsense they want to read. My 11-year-old son loves The Last Kid on Earth and Alan Gratz books. Trust me, if you let them just read and find pleasure in it, they will pick up more intellectual works eventually.
I have four sophomore English classes and during my Thursday block periods, I read with each class for their 15-minute SSR time. If you look at my Goodreads account, that is when I have read most of the verse novels and graphic novels this year. I can finish each of those books in one to two hours, which makes them perfect reading material as I try to model reading behavior for my students.
This was particularly difficult in undergrad and graduate school when I was reading so much for a grade that I just didn’t have it in me to read for fun.
Yes, I do often fall asleep after a few pages because life is exhausting.