02 April 2010

Why We Read

I am a librarian. I see a wide range of kids in a day and unlike times past, children don't necessarily come to the library to read, to be read to, or to take home a book. Growing numbers of children come to play on the computers or play with the toys or borrow a movie or video game. I have spent some time trying to decide how I feel about that.

I've always felt that it took a special child, a special person in general, to want to spend time in a library. For me, the feeling compares to standing in a cathedral: I am awed by what is represented there. It's like thinking of a library as infinite possibility. Information perched and waiting to alight on a willing intelligence.

This is why I am inclined to grieve for children who do not read. While reading a text message or the instructions for an internet game does technically qualify as reading, I am not sure it's enough. The experience of reading falls into roughly two categories in this case: the mechanical ability to process words, and the internalizing of a written message. Text messages are too abstract; online games are too repetitive and unresolved; movies do not allow the exercise one's own rich visualization.

The library offers prizes to children who read a certain number of books over the summer. One 12 year-old grabs 10 toddler books well below her reading level and reads them in an hour in order to quickly obtain a prize. Another child labors all summer at books well above his ability and claims the prize after much effort. One child took away a trinket, cheated. The other came away with something more precious than a thousand t-shirts.

Some would argue that any reading at all is a victory. But these children are not growing up in a sod hut on a barren plain. They are not limited to the five books available in their pioneer community. They have a universe at their command: millions of books, in every format, with almost endless vistas of knowledge and experience. How we shortchange them when we allow that universe to consist of the back of the cereal box! Today's child is the heir of a fantastic birthright of available knowledge.

Cereal isn't all there is. Ask Esau.

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