“I don’t like reading”

“I don’t like reading” post image

I don’t like reading.

This is what my 14-year-old says, just before he breaks my heart.

But what he’s saying isn’t exactly accurate. For one, he’s saying it as a response to me bugging him about why he doesn’t read more. Which irritates him, and makes him want irritate me right back. And he knows just how to do it.

I don’t like reading.

Two, this isn’t accurate because I know how much this kid actually does read. He reads comics like a superhero, as you know. He knows storylines back to their origins in the 1930s—and also how the history of the time factored into those storylines. Do not get him going on all the Batman reboots. (Yes, I have been schooled on the definition of the word reboot. I also know that there are multiple Batmans. (Batmen?) And multiple Robins to go with. One Robin was one Batman’s son; another became Batman himself. Makes my head spin.) My kid has complex and fervent opinions on all this, and can detail the superiority of one reboot over another with the eloquence and evidence of a literary critic.

I’ve come to appreciate all he’s learned from comics: story and character, culture and history.

He also reads on the Internet constantly. He follows Reddit threads on everything from League of Legends to astronomy. The other day he followed a Reddit link to a scholarly article—which he read—about that collision of two black holes that apparently bent space-time and proved one of Einstein’s theories, which had been recorded for the first time by scientists. (And then he tried to explain it all to his dim mother, beginning with the definition of space-time.) Then he went running to our homeschool Park Day hollering to all his friends, “Space-time has been bent! Space-time has been bent!”

Last Friday night, as we washed dishes after dinner, he explained the history of terrorism to me, using a globe to aid my 50-year-old mind. He wasn’t just parroting an article, but offering a multi-layered analysis, gleaned from long-running online reading.

Yet still his mother worries.

I read all the time.

And he does.

But he doesn’t read books like I wish he did. Like his siblings did for all their childhoods. His brother taught himself to read by looking at books. He fell asleep on Richard Scarry’s books like they were pillows and kept going from there. Once, when I was sick, he read one of the 800-page Harry Potter books in a day and a half. His sister was the same. She’s a more auditory learner and cut her teeth on audiobooks, but once she had the reading thing down, our weekly trips to the library weren’t enough for her. She inhaled books like unsupervised packages of Oreos.

T has never enjoyed traditional novels. Well, that’s not true either. I’ve been reading to him all his life—novels once he reached a certain age. And we’ve almost always had an audiobook going in the car—another novel. T has loved many of those books—remember all the conversations fueled by A Series of Unfortunate Events? On our RV trip in October, we listened to Ready Player One, which made the final day’s drive from Salt Lake City to Oakland endurable.

Still, T has never been one to check out stacks of chapter books at the library. Instead, he always raced towards the long shelves of comics and graphic novels. (Back when his 23-year-old brother was a kid, the library had Tintins and Asterixes and not much more.) He also grabbed up that splashy nonfiction so popular in the children’s section these days: all those National Geographic Kids’ almanacs! Books with titles like 5,000 Awesome Facts and Weird But True!

How can straightforward black text on a white page compete with all that flash?

Chapter books are too linear.

Which I suppose makes sense when you’re used to leaping through images and graphics, back and forth at your whim.

Books aren’t the best way to tell a story.

And I imagine you might think this, if you’ve grown up with YouTube at your fingertips.

Because this is part of the conundrum too. T is almost ten years younger than his brother, and six years younger than his sister. It’s interesting to compare the two boys in particular, since their minds seem to work in similar ways, yet the Internet and our access to it changed markedly in the ten years between them. When H was a kid, we had simple computer games like Zoombinis and Lego Harry Potter. But the Internet itself wasn’t terribly enticing to a kid back then. YouTube didn’t start picking up until H was a young teenager—but by then he’d established his reading habits. Plus, there weren’t smart phones to distract him from his books; he had to go downstairs and sit at a computer to get information.

T, in comparison, can’t remember life without YouTube. Or a kitchen without my laptop, for that matter. From the time he was five or so, he’s run to the computer to answer any question—because there was always a computer there. Or, for the last few years, a smart phone. And he has one of those himself. He’s never had to wonder for long.

We’ve put limits on Internet access, yes. And I’m not writing this as a diatribe against the Internet. (Internet-bashing on the Internet—good thinking!) But I do wonder what all this instant access to information and entertainment does to a kid’s desire to simply read a book.

This is a challenge for all of us these days—not just kids. I recently read an interesting essay by Andrew Bomback, “My Year of Internet-Assisted Reading,” about how the author can’t help but click away from what he’s reading to see something that’s been referenced. To watch it himself on YouTube. It’s a thoughtful piece on the advantages and pitfalls this sort of access has on reading.

The essay refers to another essay, this one by Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books. In “The Struggle” Parks writes about how our attention spans are making it harder and harder to concentrate on the complex paragraphs and even sentences of the books of yore. (When I try to follow the paragraph-long line from Dickens that Parks includes as proof, I’m distracted by an Anthropologie ad flashing to the right, featuring items I must have clicked on at on the site previously. Vegan leather moto pants! The Deletta Lace-up Tee! I very nearly click on those vegan leather moto pants before realizing the ridiculous irony of what I’m doing, and get back to Dickens’ over-jobbed jobberies.)

Parks suggests that our Internet-addled minds are changing the very style of writing. Hence, short paragraphs that a reader can grasp. Like this one.

Sigh. (Single-word paragraph. So trendy.)

If adults who grew up without the Internet are struggling with changing attention spans and click-ready fingers, how does this bode for our kids?

Movies and TV shows are such a better format for conveying stories.

Yes, I get it. Movies and comics, television and YouTube—how can a story told in mere words compare?

You’re just being nostalgic.

And I suppose I am. I want my kid to read books. I want him to fall asleep with a book dropped at the side of his bed. I want him to have that drive to visit a bookstore before heading out on vacation, to pick up a thick novel or work of nonfiction.

I don’t worry that he won’t be an informed, intellectual person; he’s already proven that he is. He loves to talk deeply about ideas, to critique films he’s seen, books we’ve read together.

He has a keen sense of storytelling. In our homeschoolers’ writer’s workshop he invariably writes fiction, ironically enough—and he’s good at it. He has an enviable vocabulary. He can interpret information via text like an academic.

So why do I worry? What is he missing? Does it matter so much that he doesn’t want to sit down and read a novel?

Well, I’m a writer, so yes. There is something unique, I think, about following a story that requires prolonged attention, writing that has been crafted. It doesn’t have to be a novel, I suppose. I’m a fan of memoir and essay collections myself—but still, those forms share the qualities of length and craft.

Lulu still reads books. Less mid-semester as a college student, but whenever she has a break from school, her first stop is The Strand, and that makes me happy.

I’d feared that maybe H didn’t read so much anymore, but when I text him to ask, he surprises me. He’s just finishing Junot Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a Christmas gift from his sister (Yes! Literature love!) and he proclaims it incredible. “I’m trying to make an effort to read a lot more,” he texts back. “Much better to read when falling asleep than watch videos.”

I pump my elbow to my side in silent victory. When I text that I worry about his brother, he responds, “Haha, yeah, he’s a child of the future.”

And that’s it, precisely. My concerns lined up in a single sentence.

So I do what I can to influence this child of the future. I check out the audio version of Armada, Ernest Cline’s newest book, to listen to together. I buy him the sequel to Michael Carroll’s Super Human books—a rare series that T has read on his own, since their storylines are like comics, novelized. I work harder to make sure his phone is put away at 10:00 each night. I consider reestablishing reading time during our remaining homeschooling days.

And I wish my love of books on him, silently and insistently, as only a mother can.

17 comments… add one
  • Carrie Pomeroy Feb 16, 2016 @ 17:05

    Ah, this is the one I’ve been waiting for! I think your approach, as usual, is healthy and balanced. You notice your kid’s strengths, even if the way he approaches things isn’t always what you wish it could be. You keep providing tempting reading opportunities. You listen to him and show respect for his point-of-view. And then you back off and wait, patiently, hopefully, with an open heart and an open mind. Not easy. But it’s really the only thing you can do, ultimately–isn’t it?

    I’m struck again, as I have so many times over the years, by how what you’re musing about and fretting over lines up so perfectly with what’s on my mind. My 13-year-old does most of his daytime reading on the computer but reads late into the night at bedtime and on Sunday’s, when we all take a computer Sabbath and stay off screens. I try to make sure he has something tantalizing to read for those precious Sundays. My 10-year-old strongly prefers comics and graphic novels and NEVER seeks out the classics that I cherished when I was her age. She has liked a few novels, but it’s rare lately. The one thing I notice isn’t helpful is pointing out to them that they don’t read as much as they used to. That immediately starts up an uncomfortable, defensive conversation. I just don’t want to go there.

    Your post is helpful to me as I navigate my family’s reading reality right now.

    Oh, one more thing–my nephew wasn’t much into reading as a kid. He preferred doing tricks on his skateboard and his BMX bike. But the last time I saw him–he’s now in his mid-twenties–he spoke passionately about the literary books he’s been choosing on his own and how he’s spontaneously been writing responses and reflections about them in a journal. Crazy, what can happen with time and maturity.

    • patricia Feb 17, 2016 @ 7:49

      Yes, Carrie, I had to write this post, after I told you I would!

      I do try to listen to T’s perspective on all of this. I want to understand what the world looks like through his eyes, and not just assume that my way of thinking is best. I do worry about kids and books in this day and age. I am such a booklover, yet still I struggle to pass that along to my kid. What will happen to books in households where the parents don’t care so much? What will happen to books in general?

      I love your screen Sabbath idea. I think it’s too late for that here–there would be mutiny!–but I wish I’d considered it when T was younger.

      Love your story about your nephew too. I have hope! It’s hard to imagine growing up in this house, and not having book-love rub off on T. I’m doing all the book voodoo I can when he isn’t looking. 🙂

      • Carrie Pomeroy Feb 17, 2016 @ 8:43

        I wanted to say how much I liked the way you structured your essay, too, with T’s rejoinders as a running thread throughout. Made it feel as if we as readers were getting to eavesdrop on your running conversation with him.

        • patricia Feb 17, 2016 @ 15:14

          Well, his thoughts are always interesting to me–even though they often drive me batty! I always like to hear his take on things.

  • wendy Feb 17, 2016 @ 13:18

    When you said “He’s never had to wonder for long,” that really hit me! Are we taking away the time to wonder with all this technology? I teach Kindergarten and we call ourselves “Wonder Crew.” We wonder, question, ponder, explore and create all the live long day, but will they do that in first grade or beyond? Lots to ponder…..

    • patricia Feb 17, 2016 @ 17:22

      Wonder Crew–I love that! (But here I am on a Wonder Farm, so that’s no surprise.) My kid wonders constantly–it’s just that his wonderings are almost immediately answered. I’ve told him that when I was a kid and we wondered something, we might ask an adult, or maybe we’d find a book that would answer our question at the library. But mostly we just wondered. That boggles his mind! I love having my questions answered on the internet, but like you I wonder how those instant answers affect our states of wonder. (Now that’s a wondering that the internet can’t immediately answer! Which means we get to keep mulling over it.)

  • Sarah M Feb 18, 2016 @ 14:44

    What a lovely post.

  • marta Feb 19, 2016 @ 11:07

    Hi Patricia!

    (Long time reader, a looooong time since I last commented…).

    My almost-14 year old girl has read far more books than most of her friends and I was so proud of her! She read Anne Frank! She read graphic novels like Will Eisner’s and “Maus”! She read Little Women! She read Sense and Sensibility!

    But that is past news. She bought a second-hand Ipod during the summer and she just.stopped.reading (books, I mean).

    Now she says she wants to be a movie director. She says all her stories have images and sound, so she’s not going to be a writer anymore.

    My 15 year old went through a Harry Potter phase when he was 9-12. He sort of had a Percy Jackson phase, right at the end of the Harry Potter’s, but he is done with reading as well.

    My 10 year old – “I hate reading!” – has just picked up Tom Sawyer at his own volition and I have to tell him to stop reading and go to sleep, every night…

    (They’re all in school, so of course they read the assigned books…)

    Different stories, evolving stories, always!

    (As an aside, have you come by David Bowie’s list of Top 100 Books? Junot Diaz’s is there, as are A Clockwork Orange, Madame Bovary… Have a look and have your older kids (sp. your movie student kid) have a look too. I’m certainly following it and ticking them off as I’ll get to read the ones I haven’t gone through yet. Quite fascinating – as it should be, coming from such an wondrous creature 😉 )

    Marta from Lisbon

    • patricia Feb 20, 2016 @ 9:23

      Marta from Lisbon! I’m so happy to hear from you! I was just thinking of you the other day, when I scrolled past one of my old posts on kids and videogames.

      “Different stories, evolving stories, always!” Yes. Evolving is key. One thing I’m learning is that just because they may not be reading now, it doesn’t mean they’ll never read again.

      It’s so interesting that your daughter says that “all her stories have images and sound.” That’s exciting too, don’t you think? It’s why I pay attention to what T says when he explains why he doesn’t like reading as much as other forms of entertainment/information gathering. We want them to gravitate towards forms that are meaningful to them–even if it makes us worry that they’re missing out on the old forms.

      Incidentally, “movie student kid” has been out of school for a year-and-a-half and is supporting himself fully on his camera work. Yes! He is definitely someone whose stories are based on images, yet he finds himself driven to read again. Once they’ve had that love, maybe it never goes away.

      I hadn’t seen David Bowie’s list–it’s a good one! I love that Bowie was such a champion for books.

      xo from California

  • Pam T Feb 19, 2016 @ 16:57

    Interesting post, Tricia! Things certainly have changed! I do think we adults have different attention spans than we used to. I know I do. And our children of the future certainly do too. But I’m not sure it’s fair simply to say that these modern attention spans are shorter. At the very least I think we have to give them credit for also being broader and probably more curious as well. Our family just watched an eight part documentary on World War I and I couldn’t sit through it without googling questions it left unanswered, questions a decade or two ago I would have left unanswered because it was too inconvenient.

    I’m not sure what it means, if it means anything at all, that not as many of us read Dickens. I think about just how much more is available to read (and listen to and watch) now than there was then. 300 years ago, it was probably still possible to have read and comprehend “the” canon of knowledge but there’s so much more knowledge out there now. I think we have to pick and choose. I also think as our media change, our language changes too. Shakespeare’s language, while still loved, was archaic by Dicken’s time, as the language of both of them is still loved and archaic now. While of course there’s something still to be gained from reading Dickens, his language is not the way we communicate anymore, so most of our communication will look different.

    I do worry a little about how we can all organize our wonder. It does seem easier to jump around more. Sometimes that’s great but sometimes, like with the Anthropologie ads that caught your eye, not so much!

    • patricia Feb 20, 2016 @ 9:45

      Hi Pam! So neat to have you commenting here!

      I agree with your thoughts on attention spans. They’re not shorter, they’re just different. Watching movies with T brings that home for me. It sounds similar to your experience with the WWI documentary. He simply can’t watch a movie without looking things up on his phone as we watch. I find it both fascinating and infuriating! On the one hand I want him to just put the phone down and enjoy the film. (I’m referring to feature films, not documentaries.) I want him to just immerse himself in the experience, and do his research later! Yet at the same time, I see how curious he is, how absolutely informed he is about the world, in a way that I never was, and may never be.

      So I recognize that while attention is changing, and I have nostalgia for what was, there is also beauty in what’s replacing it. Our children are intelligent, and curious, and fascinating, aren’t they?

      I’m very glad that books these days are not written in the style of Dickens, or Shakespeare–I don’t have the patience for that! I love that language evolves. I just hope that it doesn’t evolve to the point that people don’t pick up books, don’t feel inclined towards writing that is complex and crafted. But I’ve read in several places recently that bookstores are on an upsurge again. That’s encouraging.

      And, of course, I’m not missing the irony in the fact that we’re having this interesting conversation on the internet. I love this as much as I love my books. Or almost as much. 🙂

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, Pam. I love the conversation.

  • Sarah Miller May 17, 2021 @ 9:28

    Patricia, I have been a long, longtime follower of you on Instagram but had no idea you have a blog (and one that’s so lovely to read in a variety of ways).

    I also had no idea you are a homeschooler. This realization — and this post in particular — comes at the perfect time, as we are finishing up our year of COVID homeschooling 1st grade and our 6yo has begun to tell us, at least every few days, that she hates reading. (She has been slow to learn to read — is only able to get through early readers, though I suspect that’s less an ability issue and more a willingness one, though she is a happy recipient of all our reading aloud and she devours audiobooks so fast I can barely keep them coming from the library.)

    I fret. Our homeschooling experiment — forced on us during this pandemic year when we wanted more for her than sitting on Zoom 6+ hours a day — feels mostly like a failure. She has learned plenty this year, but not because I’ve been a great teacher — mostly I have had to demand that work gets done, and this is so far from the homeschooling parent I wanted to be it hurts. No wonder the kid “hates to read.” I pray (literally) that we have not ruined reading for her forever.

    My instinct now, near the end of our formal school year, is to drop the issue — to just continue to read and read and read aloud to her, keep the audiobooks coming, listen to her read when she feels like it rather than as a mandate for “school” — and hope for the best when she returns to public school for 2nd grade in September. This is what I want to do, certainly.

    I never knew homeschooling would feel so fraught and risky.

    Thank you for all your reflections here and on Instagram. Thank you for reading (listening to) this long comment. I will buy your memoir the moment it comes out.

    • patricia May 18, 2021 @ 15:16

      Dearest Sarah,

      I’m going to try to convince you that your year has not been a failure. Because there is so much good stuff happening your comment! It’s just getting slightly obscured beneath the fretting and the fears.

      Doubt and fret are pretty typical for homeschooling parents, especially at first. And those feelings never completely disappear, no matter how long you homeschool. But I’m going to put “homeschooling” in quotes here because the experience most families have had this past year is not typical of non-pandemic homeschooling. I can’t tell from your comment if your daughter was doing work assigned by her school, or doing work you thought was necessary to “keep up,” knowing she’d be going back to public school next year. Either situation puts the parent in an impossible position. It’s like the nightmare of nagging about getting homework done–but all day, every day! Most homeschoolers–even those who follow a curriculum, which many don’t–begin to drift from “assignments” over time. They begin to see the power in activities the kids are truly interested in, and slowly learn to let those activities take more space in the day. But for many parents–hand raised here!–the move away from a school model can be slow. It takes most of us more than a year to get the school way of thinking out of our minds.

      And “homeschooling” this past year meant holding on to all the hardest parts of homeschooling for a parent–the time, the responsibility, the fears of doing things “wrong”–without so many of the things that make homeschooling a delight. Library trips. Visits to museums and aquariums and historical sites and living history trips where you live like gold miners for a weekend. The weekly park days with other homeschoolers, and the play dates, and the sleepovers. The book clubs and the science clubs and the writer’s workshops and the groups based on everything-under-the-sun-the-kids-are-into: baseball and American Girl dolls and Harry Potter and poetry and the history of rock and roll. Talent shows and history fairs. Camping trips. I could go on.

      In other words, this was a very tough year to try a “homeschooling experiment.” Add on the stress we’ve all been under and it’s pretty much the worst year you could imagine to experiment with homeschooling.

      Let’s talk about your daughter saying she hates reading. Actually, let’s talk about how when my oldest was seven, I made him swat a stack of papers off the table and stomp up the stairs hollering, “I hate writing!” There’s a longer version of the story here, but suffice it to say that I was so wrapped up in keeping my kid up with what kids do in school, that I made him despise the very thing I love. (And I know from Instagram how much reading means to you, Sarah.) But guess what? Despite my ineptitude, I did not ruin writing for him forever! I did just what your instincts are telling you to do: I dropped it. I stopped making him write. I started taking dictation from him instead. (Lots more on that here.) I started a writer’s workshop, so he could share his dictated writing with friends. He started writing his own Captain Underpants comics, and those comics became longer stories that he wrote on his own, and before long the kid was writing pages and pages and asking me for writerly advice.

      My daughter sounds so much like your daughter. At seven, she did not show much interest in the early readers I dutifully checked out at the library week after week, but she adored being read to and listened to audiobooks by the hour, sometimes starting one over the minute it ended. (May I go on a tangent here about audiobooks? Because I wish every parent was given a brochure on the wonders of audiobooks with their child’s birth certificate. I admit that when my daughter started her endless listening, I felt guilty about it. It seemed to be a passive sort of entertainment, and a sort of “cheating” way of reading. Over time I changed my tune. I started noticing the vocabulary she was picking up, words like sodden and appreciated. I will never forget the day she snapped at her brother, “You have a severe lack of moral stamina!” and it took me a sec to realize she’d picked up that phrase from a Lemony Snicket book. Only after she started reading–more on that below–did I recognize how much audiobooks had provided a scaffold for her. She could make insightful guesses at words because she knew how sentences flowed. But what really sold me on audiobooks was facilitating writer’s workshops for many years. I could always tell the kids who listened to lots of audiobooks–they had a flow and pacing and rhythm to their writing that even the most avid readers didn’t quite have. And they knew how to read their work with life and drama, like pros. I’ve been proclaiming my love for audiobooks ever since.)

      But back to reading. Because my daughter was my second child, I had learned a thing or two. I did not want her to holler, “I hate reading!” the way her brother had hollered, “I hate writing!” So I didn’t push. It was incredibly hard, though, because as you know, schools assume kids will read at six. The reason for that, of course, is that it’s easier to teach a large group of children if they’re all able to read. But there’s research–and I’m sorry not to chase it down for you–that tells us that outside of school, the average age for reading is more like eight or nine! I’d had it easy with my oldest–he’s a very visual kid and he read early. I began to understand that my daughter–especially with her unabashed audiobook love–is a more auditory learner. Don’t make her hate reading, don’t make her hate reading I’d tell myself, and I did precisely what your instincts are telling you to do. I read and read and read aloud to her and kept the audiobooks coming. I didn’t ask her to read aloud. I kept checking out the easy readers and left them lying around temptingly, mentioning them once, and then keeping my mouth shut–so freaking difficult!

      Something shifted when she was about seven-and-a-half. She started picking up books and reading them, and in a matter of months the easy readers became middle-readers became chapter books like Ramona the Pest. She read constantly. We couldn’t keep enough library books around for her. At 25, she’s still a big reader. By kid #3, I knew an auditory learner when I saw one. I didn’t even bother pushing early readers on him–but soon recognized how much he loved comics. A few months before he turned eight, a few carefully-curated-by-me, easy-to-read comics hooked him and off he went. (Though he reads constantly, at 19 he’s not a book-lover like his siblings are, but I’ve come to terms with that, as I know you know, based on where you left this comment. 🙂 )

      Here’s what I really want to say to you, Sarah. This year has not been a failure. You are getting so many things right. You are learning to put the school model aside and to trust your instincts. That is the most important thing a homeschooling parent can do–it’s the most important thing, I think, any parent can do. That’s precisely what I learn in the first chapter of my memoir draft, and what I keep learning as the draft goes on, chapter by chapter, year by year. Trust your gut. It can be a slow awakening, but an essential one. 

      When you write that you suspect your daughter’s “slowness” to read is “less an ability issue and more a willingness one,” I see a mother who is paying close attention to her child, and understanding her. I see that attention, too, when you write, “she has learned plenty this year, but not because I’ve been a great teacher.” Well, it took me many years to understand that the most important things my kids learned, they taught themselves. 🙂 I stopped even thinking of myself as a teacher, and began considering myself a facilitator. (Or, as Austin Kleon puts it: I’ve always felt that I was more of a librarian for my kids.) You are already setting the ground for that sort of self-initiated learning; I see it when you write, “she devours audiobooks so fast I can barely keep them coming from the library.” Here is a mother who is providing just the sort of environment her children need for the richest learning to happen.

      You are figuring it all out, dear Sarah, despite the chaotic, unsure world that swirls around us.

      Your comment means more to me than you know. In the past few months I’ve had my own doubts and fears as I work on my memoir. Will my writing ever be good enough? Will I ever finish this thing? But your tender words here remind me who I’m writing for. I need to do what you need to do. We need to trust our guts, and we need to keep going.

      xo, Patricia

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