By Brian Kaufman
I love my Kindle. To be able to carry a library with you is a beautiful thing. I’ll never kill time standing in line again. While I wait, I read.
That said, there’s nothing like a physical book. The bound, printed word has weight and texture. I love the feel of a leather binding. A well-designed cover can be a work of art. Books even smell good, with hints of wood, smoke, and vanilla. (As book pages age, they give off volatile organic compounds—VOCs. These emissions can be quite pleasant.)
Books demand your attention, disconnecting you from distractions in a way electronics can’t. You won’t push a button in a printed book to check your social media likes.
Books are also good for your head. Physically flipping the pages of a book slows you down, allowing your brain to digest what you’re feeding it. You become more than just a data collector because you can’t scroll through books like a news feed. Your working memory has a chance to transfer information to your long-term memory, allowing a synthesis between new ideas and what you already know.
However, we do not always embrace what is good for us. According to the Pew Research Center, a fourth of American adults admit not reading a book over the previous year. (Notice the verb—admit.) Americans over the age of 50 (and I’m way over) are more likely to be non-readers than their younger counterparts. So, how did I become the old guy with more bookcases than a furniture store?
I blame my parents.
When my mom took us shopping, I always found a toy that I had to have. Didn’t matter what—I did not want to go home empty-handed. My clever mom said yes, but never to the toy. Yes, to books.
I recall stopping at a drug store one night. Back in the day, some drug stores had a small toy section, and I went looking. Seek, and ye shall find—in this case, a rocket. You could put water in the plastic spaceship, pump in some air pressure, and launch. Instead, I walked out with a book on rocketry. Sixty years later, I still remember the book because of the excellent cutaway illustrations. It introduced me to physics—my first attempt (mostly without success) at working my way through concepts like trajectory and escape velocity.
Books for Christmas? Yes. Birthdays, too.
Dinnertime was never a silent affair. We played word games and discussed books we’d read. When Mom asked our opinions about the best Dr. Seuss book, we weighed in. Go, Dog, Go! was repetitive—something I came to understand and appreciate when, after multiple reads. My son was able to recite the text from memory. He began reading in earnest shortly thereafter.
Bedtime featured another clever trick. I could turn out the lights and go to sleep, or I could keep the lights on for an extra half hour and read. No brainer. After lights out? I slept with a flashlight (at first to continue reading, and later to ward off Edgar Poe and his short stories).
When comic books were considered a threat to the nation’s children, my parents brought them home from the newsstand. But for every Superman, I got a Classics Illustrated. I had read Two Years Before the Mast and Faust by the time I was ten. I’ve since read the books in their original, full-length versions. I prefer the comics.
When the Scholastic Book form was passed out at school, I poured over it like a Sears Christmas catalog, circling favorites.
Mom and Dad read aloud to us, of course. A long car trip meant a chapter book. The one that really struck home was George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Again, I was pretty young—no more than nine. I was fascinated by this animal story with a moral. The scene that hit me hardest came when noble Boxer tried to break his way out of the horse van as the pigs shipped him off to the glue factory. Even now, when I hear the word “betrayal,” I think of poor Boxer.
I don’t know if Dad “abridged” the story as he read. Probably not, knowing him. I recall his mention of the Russian Revolution, but only in passing. When I was in junior high, I read the book myself. I realized that Orwell was talking about totalitarianism, not barnyards. In high school, I reread the book and understood the allegorical elements. Snowball was Trotsky? Napoleon was Stalin? My mind was properly blown.
Every Monday night, my father took me to the library. I checked out seven books a week—one for each day. No subject was off-limits. When I was twelve, I started reading psychology texts. Who knows why? I went from topic to topic, like surfing the net, only slower. After thoroughly mining the shelves at my hometown library, we made the long trip to the Cleveland Public Library. A dark, sprawling nightmare building that inspired much of my early attempts at writing.
Dad worked sixty-five-hour weeks, and time was dear. But so, apparently, were his kids.
When I had a family of my own, I used some of the same tricks. We took trips to the library (the one in Denver had a playground—an excellent enticement). We enjoyed family outings that paired a movie or the zoo with a trip to the Tattered Cover. I still smile when I think of my daughter Tiger struggling with a stack of books, moaning, “I can’t decide!” I’d promised to buy one. She invariably left with three.
With so much digital competition for children’s time, my wife bargained, trading video game time for literature. As well as being fine readers, the children became expert negotiators! Good parenting all around, I would say.
At Christmas, I select a book for everyone in the family, including the kid’s significant others. I try to find something unusual that fits each person’s taste, though the subversive in me looks for something that will provoke thought as well. Since I’m consistent in this annual effort, family members have begun speculating on titles, emailing recommendations to each other, and trading off books.
In short, I have tried to pass on my addiction.
Mom and Dad are gone, but I know what they did for me, and I admire their tactics. For those of you with children, how do you encourage a love for books?