Monday, February 10, 2014
As you know if you're a faithful reader of this blog, I've long been perplexed by my son's nonlinear reading habits. He loves to read and spends a lot of time every day reading -- articles in Trains Magazine or Classic Trains, snippets of books about the London Underground, National Geographic articles, books about great buildings, picture books, favorite chapters of favorite books, Tintin and Asterix, Tintin and Asterix, Tintin and Asterix. I've tracked the non-picture books he's read on Listography. He loves to read, he tests very high on his annual national standardized test in reading, and he reads well above 4th-grade "reading level." He thinks of himself as a kid who loves to read. It's unreasonable that I am anything but thrilled with his reading.
But it drives me nuts that he starts and abandons many chapter books. We don't assign any reading to him as part of his "school" work, yet I find myself pestering him to continue reading a book I know he has begun and set aside. I am a literature professor; I believe really really strongly in the value of finishing books! I know that nagging is counter-productive, but I can't resist nudging him to pick the book up again and read a bit more to see if it grabs him. Often, this is exactly what happens. He reads a bit farther and is suddenly completely absorbed, begging to read one more chapter before lights out at night. So, despite being uncomfortable that I've compromised my commitment to my child's free reading, I feel vindicated.
When we were in Europe last semester, we had no access to a children's library and had been able to bring only a few books with us. N. didn't have the range of nonfiction or old favorite fiction to dip into as he did at home. In London, however, we lived around the corner from Daunt Books, a wonderful little bookstore with an excellent children's section. They stocked both Tintin and Asterix books (which we have to order online here in the States), much to N.'s delight. While I wasn't initially thrilled by his love of comics, I've come to see their value as reading material and I decided to use them to encourage N. to read some longer fiction from start to finish. So I bribed him. If he read a longer work of fiction, I would buy him a Tintin or Asterix volume when he finished. We had fun walking to the bookstore and picking out the next novel or the next comic; it is such a luxury to live near a decent bookstore!
During the course of my bribing scheme, N. read a couple Enid Blyton novels (and I wondered if this was really cause for celebration, since Tintin and Asterix are much much better written than Blyton's drivel!), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the first of Frank Cottrell Boyce's sequels, three of the Zack Files books that his grandma sent him, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. My hope was that this would get him in a more regular habit of always having a chapter book going, but when we returned to our extensive home library in December, N. was back to his preferred mode of browsing. After reacquainting himself with his favorites, he's read Horton's Mysterious Mechanisms by Lissa Evans and is almost done with the sequel (which he begged for, began, put aside, and picked up after my prodding).
The moral of this story is that my bribing didn't change N.'s reading habits. When he happens on a book he wants to finish, he does. While I do think it is important to read novels from start to finish, to cultivate sustained engagement with a story, to open yourself to a novel's development rather than to dismiss it too soon, I also appreciate not wanting to waste your time on a book that isn't worth it. It took me many years to be able to put a book down unfinished, and I rarely do so. Now instead of bribing or nagging my son to finish a book, I'm trying to talk with him about why he decides to abandon one. I'd much rather he develop an awareness of how and why he assesses a book as worth continuing than that he reads to the end simply out of obligation. I'm trying to think about our temperamental differences as readers as an occasion for talking about why we read, what we want in reading, when reading what we think we won't like can be pleasurable, when to put a book down.