People are sometimes surprised that I don’t consider myself a reader, given that a) I’m an English teacher and b) I sometimes blog about how much I’ve read. I’ve given it some thought, and I think it’s still a hangover from thinking (or being forced into thinking) I didn’t like reading when I was a kid. Now that term has started again, and we’re beginning a series of reading lessons with Y8, my own personal ghost of library lessons past has reared its head and so I thought I would ponder a bit on what I think it means to be someone who ‘likes reading’, and ask if anyone has any strategies they’ve employed that would have helped a child like me.
So why didn’t I like reading when I was a kid? Well, the fact is, I did. I quite clearly did. I look back to my childhood and remember burning through certain books with fervour, and often re-reading them again and again to the point of obsession. I rather suspect I could still recite whole passages of the Biggles series (I probably spent longer reading these books than the average WWI pilot lived once basic training was done), or the Billy Bunter books (I was, to put it lightly, relieved to find that boarding school wasn’t actually like that), or Jurassic Park, and various others besides. That said, while I sometimes loved losing myself in fictional worlds, I didn’t develop a true love for it. I wouldn’t just pick anything up and give it a try, for sure. What I did love, though, was non-fiction. I ate it up. I couldn’t stop reading newspapers, magazines, and books about my favourite films, bands, sports and people. So why didn’t I think I liked reading? Simple really. I got told that what I liked wasn’t ‘proper’ reading. People would use the word ‘should’ at me an awful lot. ‘Paul, you really should read this’ or ‘Boys your age should be reading King Lear’ (I kid you not, a teacher actually told me this once) or even worse, ‘you shouldn’t be reading picture books about football.’ Ah yes. The presumption on the part of some of the adults in my life that if a book I had contained pictures, it was a picture book, and picture books are exclusively for children. I was a child, of course, but this seemed somewhat beside the point. Sometimes, when I found a book I really liked, I would read it again and again, rather than choosing something new. Not very ‘Growth-Mindset’ I suppose (though bear in mind nobody had ever used that term before) but I was a teenager so I sometimes needed a bit of escapism, and I also enjoyed the quiet certainty that in a time of great confusion, I could depend on an old favourite book to cheer me up. I was also reliably informed that this was not what I should be doing.
It was odd. I learned how to play the guitar by repeatedly and almost mechanically learning Beatles and Oasis songs, sometimes playing the same songs for hours on end. When I did this, people couldn’t stop praising me, and then asking me to play them again. I was doing guitar right, obviously; but I was doing books wrong. By the time I reached 14, my reading ‘habits’ (if you can call them that) had been patronised and demeaned to the point of no childhood return. I never really did get back to reading for pleasure until well into my 20s. Occasionally I would find an audiobook or a radio programme that I enjoyed, but was soon assured that this wasn’t reading either. By the time we actually did King Lear for A-Level, I didn’t even read the whole thing. I think there’s a storm, a naked pensioner, a deep and meaningful insight about us being like flies to wanton boys, a relatively anti-social ocular extraction and that everyone dies at the end, but I don’t really know.
I am angry that I was made to feel like what I was reading didn’t count. It pushed me to give up on it, and I feel like I missed a lot. Shouldn’t it just have been enough that I enjoyed the things I enjoyed? I don’t know that I would have moved on to ‘proper’ books if I’d been left to my own devices or not; but I know that as a young boy I got bored quickly and wanted new stimulus pretty much all the time, so it’s not impossible. It’s how my reading habits work now, so I don’t suppose things would have been much different in my spottier years.
I wish I’d had the courage of my convictions. I LOVE reading now, and it turns out I’m good at it. I’m still not someone who devours classics, but I decided at some point that simply imbibing language from whatever source I deemed legitimate was going to serve me well, and broke free of the dogmatic chains of ‘proper’ reading. Now I read whenever I can, often firing through several books a week when time allows it. I still have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Fiction, but now I don’t have some idiot teacher telling me what I should and shouldn’t read, I’m free to read it when the mood takes me, and I’m very happy with it too. I have students depending on me, I guess, and I really hope I can pass on a passion for reading whatever makes them happy. Certainly, I hope it’s something thoroughly improper.