My granddaughter Anna shows me her “homework” and fluently reads from a text. Her father, who takes almost everything, including the achievements of his children, in stride, remarks that he doesn’t remember spelling words like Antarctica and penguin in first grade. Anna’s in the top level of her reading class at an average school. I say, that although I taught high school English for a few years, I never had a good sense of elementary curriculum. We agree we are mildly impressed with her reading ability.
I know that reading is key to success and will serve her well, particularly in school. If she has reading skills now, academic success is one challenge we likely don’t need to worry about.
I think again, and tell Anna’s father, that what I really wish for Anna, who tends to perfectionism, is that reading will become a sanctuary for her, a way to calm herself. Just because she can decode easily doesn’t mean she’s learned to use reading the way I have, and I suspect most book lovers have – as a place to go and not think about our flaws and failures.
Reading is not just an escape, though it can be that. It has served me as a way to shut out annoyances as well as what counselor types refer to as negative self-talk. As a child I was able to create that bubble of attention while reading a book– seemingly not hearing the requests – come to the supper table -- or seeing the chaos – my brothers’ squabbling -- around me. Rejected by playmates, stung by slights and cruelties, I didn’t stew for long; I could always read.
That place of sustained attention and focus on another, often imaginary, other is just a leap short of a kind of stillness I find in more meditative activities. Reading slows my mind. Books are hypnotic places of sanctuary. Granted, sometimes what I read quickens my heart beat, irritates me, scares the bejezus out of me – or lingers as malaise over the state of the world, but these are moods and malaises I can mull and get over, and ones that are outside myself.
As I read blogs about depression, plagiarism and feeling overwhelmed, I think about the healing power of reading. Reading, writing and sharing reading experiences in blogs and otherwise can be ways of presenting false personae, but they also can be ways of exploring and expressing authentic selves.
If I had magic wand and could be a fairy godmother/grandmother, I would give the gift of such sustained, focused attention to Anna. I know she will think she's reading primarily to learn for many years to come. She may also discover along the way that reading entertains, provokes, promotes – and serves all kinds of purposes I have appreciated over time.
I hope she also discovers the one most precious to me now: how it empowers me to absorb and be absorbed, to simultaneously find myself and lose myself in something other -- and greater -- than myself.
Coincidentally, a yoga blog I follow published a post on a similar theme that I thought some book bloggers might be interested in. Here are two links: