Through the miracle of Facebook, I’ve enjoyed the great pleasure of renewing my acquaintance with an old friend of my sister’s, Bruce Donnola. No, my sister’s name is not “Bruce Donnola,” but I’m too tired to get myself out of that messy sentence construction. “Bruce Donnola” is actually the name of . . . nevermind. Growing up, Bruce was once very much my long-haired elder, but I’ve closed the gap over the years. He recently sent to me a brief essay that was intended for my defunct but most awesome blog, FATHERSREAD.com, which, alas, died on the vine. The blog didn’t get the response I’d hoped for, but more importantly I learned that I just didn’t have the time to give it the energy necessary to succeed. Disappointing, but lessons learned. I still care deeply about the gender gap in reading, about boys and reading.
Here’s the father’s story that Bruce sent. I scanned it quickly upon first reading, the way hurried people read emails, and thought it was good. Then I reread it, taking my time, and just now reread it again with deepening appreciation. I gradually recognized how many deep, important truths about boys and reading were contained in this subtle narrative. The comic books, the reading for information, the parental disappointment (and, at times, disaprroval), and the boy himself — an alert, active mind picking his way curiously through the pages and statistics and cereal boxes.
My wife worries that our eleven-year-old son doesn’t read. This has been going on for a few years now. It started in second grade when we bought him easy readers like Danny and the Dinosaur. We read that to him many times, imagining that he would eventually enjoy finding a quiet time to sit and reread it on his own, just like us grownups. But Cisco never had the slightest interest. He enjoyed having us read to him (thankfully, he still does). But he would not read books from cover to cover on his own. “He won’t even read Danny and the Dinosaur,” my wife despaired.
That disinclination has remained unchanged over the last three-plus years. But my response to my wife has always been the same: Cisco does read — he just doesn’t read books from start to finish, unless they’re assigned in school. He pulls out books on things he’s interested in — Star Wars, Leggos, dogs. What he does on an almost daily basis is open a book, flip through the pages looking at photos, stop when something grabs him, read a caption, maybe a paragraph or two, then move on. He does this with books, with comic books, with toy catalogs and most recently with newspapers.
My son is totally hyperactive, with little patience or desire to sit still. The way my son reads is part of the way he is. But the truth is that I was not hyperactive as a kid, yet my reading habits were much the same as his. Despite growing up in a highly literate household where everyone read constantly, much of it heavy literature (my mom’s favorite author was William Faulkner, my oldest brother loved James Joyce), the truth is that I barely read any books from start to finish unless they were assigned in school. Just like my son.
Yet I read constantly.
I read comic books the way some people eat potato chips. I couldn’t get enough of them, bought every new issue of (mostly) DC Comics every month and reread old issues dozens of times. I had a huge collection of Classics Illustrated and, despite the derision often accorded them, developed a love for the great stories of western literature that remains to this day.
I also read other frivolous things as a kid. I had a subscription to Mad Magazine, with contents that ranged from silly to brilliant. I LOVED Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, a periodical that mostly focused on old horror films from the 1930s and 40s, with a strong appreciation of earlier silent films. It was also filled with truly horrendous puns which any boy would appreciate (it came from Horrorwood, Karloffornia). This wonderful and ridiculous magazine led me into a lifelong love of cinema history.
I also read Peanuts voraciously — in fact, I probably learned the word “voraciously” by reading Peanuts. I remember often going to my parents holding a Peanuts paperback, asking what certain words meant, trying to understand jokes about Beethoven, psychiatry, or World War I fighter pilots. The intelligence, wit, and incredible comic timing of Peanuts in the 1960s are still a marvel to me. How many words are in any given four-panel Peanuts strip? Yet how much depth is contained in those words?
I also found joy reading ephemeral things like toy catalogs. I literally spent hours poring through the legendary Johnson Smith catalogs, with their X-ray specs, trick black soap and plastic vomit. Each item that was for sale was described in probably one or two sentences. But I savored each one of those brief descriptions over and over, as if they were a perfect haiku. All the possibilities of the mysterious world ahead seemed to lay in that booklet of magic tricks and practical jokes.
I could go on but the point is simple: what a boy reads is not the issue. The number of words he reads is not the issue. The issue, assuming there is no reading disability and assuming he is in a home where the parents read, is: does he have access to the books, magazines, comics, catalogs, baseball cards — whatever — that are about things he loves?
I didn’t really start reading books from beginning to end until I was a teenager, and truly it was not until I was eighteen or so that I really fell in love with literature. But the foundation had been laid in my childhood: in a house of book lovers, with good and great books shelved and piles up in every room, my parents quietly encouraged me to read by providing every silly book, comic, magazine or useless piece of printed ephemera, no matter how few words or how unchallenging, that I craved. The result was I had fun reading. The result was I have always loved to read.
So now in my son’s room you will find, once you recover from seeing the astonishing mess, two bookcases packed with books that range from early readers to teenage titles; a few stacks of old comic books, mostly from my childhood era (unlike today’s comics, they were actually meant for kids); Leggos magazines, which are mailed to us free every other month; a couple of DK Eyewitness books on Star Wars that look like they’ve survived the Clone Wars; two books on dogs recently taken out of the school library (hint-hint); a horrible new teen music magazine (he’s got the hots for Victoria Justice), and at his bedside a copy of Danny and the Dinosaur. One night recently he pulled it out on his own and decided to read it before bed. And there it remains, reread many times since. At his age, eleven years old, it presents no challenge to his intelligence and no challenge to his reading abilities. He simply likes to read it because it makes him happy.