Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Is reading books that difficult?

Last Sunday, I was in my room with Mika, my cousin's daughter. We were busy with my 1,000-piece puzzle when she suddenly directed my attention to all the books in my room. "Tito, why do you like books so much? Have you read all of these books?" The first question, about my love for books, can be quite difficult to answer, especially since my love for books encompasses several levels. (I read books because reading gives me pleasure. I read to kill time while stuck in traffic or while waiting for someone who's terribly late. I read books because they're there.) The second one, however, I answered quickly. "I've read most of them."

I'm no stranger to these questions though. People who're privileged enough to enter my room are simply amazed to see thousands of books and are perplexed by the idea that I've spent a significant portion of my waking hours reading them. Judging by their reactions, I can see that most of them felt that reading this much is simply a waste of any one's time. When Mika posed these same questions, I realized that I have to find a different approach to my answers. Here is a young person (Mika is 8) who's wondering why someone would take the time to read for several hours and still enjoy the experience. I must admit that when people in their late 20s up have developed an aversion to reading, I really can't influence them enough about the meaningful experience of reading. Young people are different; they'll believe everything you tell them IF you sound authoritative enough.

When I told my niece that I've read most of my book collection, I intentionally added that it was no big thing. Well, it really isn't if you think about it. If you still read just one book (any book) in a month, that's 12 in a year. And if you live up to the ripe old age of 60, you'd have read at least more than 500 books! To emphasize my point further, I took out one of my picture books entitled The Cow That Laid an Egg and we decided to skip the puzzle for the meantime and just read. It took us just under an hour to finish it. (It would've been quicker if not for Mika's outrageous but witty comments about the androgynous cow and the size of the egg.) See? You can read a book in an hour! And enjoy it too!

Perhaps what kills the reading experience for most people is their high school reading list. Books in grade school tend to be fun and read quickly because of the simple but effective use of language. Of course, their pictures help a lot in comprehension too. When you reach high school, it's as if you're expected to read the works of literary giants and then write a paper on the symbolisms employed in the book. We're simply not prepared to read To Kill a Mockingbird or The Catcher in the Rye because our culture's so far removed from the books' contexts. Yes, the themes may be "universal," but we have trouble decoding these themes between the lines. And then you get to college and you're required to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. I don't blame you if you've ended up buying the Cliffs notes because you simply do not have the stamina for the novel. The novel is quite brilliant though IF you read it for the sake of reading. If you're not preoccupied keeping tabs for your book report on which Buendia character is supposed to represent what, you'll be dazzled with Marquez's device of metafiction and appreciate how it carries the story further. Characters just seem to appear out of nowhere and a person engaged in dialogue suddenly assumes into heaven. These are natural in the world of Marquez.

Also, I read because I was never under the impression that reading will make me someone better. There's just too much pressure going on in that mindset. I read because I want to. I think this is the most effective way to get children to read. Let them read just for the pleasure of it. Adults should also be involved too. Don't force children to read something, anything. They'll hate you for it. I still cringe at the memory of my high school teacher who wouldn't let us choose which books to write reports on. Unfortunately, I was assigned Uncle Tom's Cabin. I was 13, and I couldn't care less about racial equality in a foreign land during the early 20th century. It also didn't help that everyone was loving Whoopi Goldberg's character in Ghost.


mel said...

very good post-I have a lot of books too-not as many as I once did as i sold and gave to a library 80 percent of my books when I retired from Florida to QC-I shipped a lot of them that I could not part with to form the basis of a library here.
I have been reading continually for about 50 years-I would hazard to guess 5000 books give or take 1000-as long as I have some good books lined up to read I will never be bored

Thomas said...

The story you tell about your niece is very sweet. I have either been too far away from my nieces and nephews or they have been totally uninterested in any kind of reading. I am the dreaded uncle who always gave them books for their birthday. But there is one niece left. She is five and she loves being read to. So fingers crossed.

Mike said...

Peter I just read this post now. What amazing and poignant observations! I totally agree with you regarding the disparity of our culture and the culture that is the backdrop of most required reading books in HS.

I also agree that requiring someone to read a book may, in turn, turn them off from reading.

Case in point: I only appreciated Golding's "Lord of the Flies" after I re-read it in college (required reading in HS). I plan to do the same for "Noli Me Tangere".