My tenth-grade daughter recently told me she loved reading My Ántonia, by Willa Cather. I texted her asking her why she loved this book. Here’s what she wrote back:
I loved My Ántonia because it’s like nothing I’ve ever read. There’s never a clear climax and the language is very poetic but straightforward. I also liked its focus on a kid from the middle of nowhere in Nebraska because I know so little about what life is like out of the city. . . . There were several times when I read such a poetic section that I would just sit there with the book in my hands and be unable to read anymore or do anything because what I had just read was so beautiful and impactful that I needed to process it to let it sink in. I think it’s some of the most beautiful language I’ve ever read.
Her reply points to three ways reading changes our lives, what I call the 3 joys of reading.
Joy #1: Reading transports us to new and exciting places and times.
When I was about 10, I absolutely loved Submarine!, a thrilling tale of undersea warfare during World War II. Edward Beach, the author, had served as executive officer aboard Trigger, a U.S. submarine credited with sinking 18 Japanese ships in the Pacific. I could feel the tension as Trigger wiggled her way to the ocean depths, chased by Japanese destroyers dropping depth charges. I imagined myself as a junior torpedo man, hearing the plop of the depth charges dropping into the water and the click of their arming, wondering if these would be the last sounds I’d ever hear. The steely courage of those men!
Reading is a more powerful experience than movies or video games because, as the cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham writes, “Only reading elicits your contribution to the experience by demanding that you mentally create the world described.” 1 Brainwork in this context is deeply pleasurable and rewarding. Or, as the fantasy writer George R.R. Martin has said, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”2
Joy #2: Reading leads us to new ways of seeing ourselves and the world.
On my daughter’s recommendation, I read My Ántonia and I love it, too. I was particularly taken by the ebbs and flows of the relationship between the two most important families in the novel. I’m living through some challenges in my own relationships, and one of the characters in the novel is inspiring me to think about how to manage those challenges in a new way.
As Willingham observes, “Only fiction demands that you live with the characters as long or as deeply.” When you read a book, you spend enough time with the characters to feel some of their feelings and absorb some of their identity.3
Sometimes books lead us to radically new ways of seeing the world. A friend told me that Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, had that kind of impact on her. Sometimes books work on us in more subtle ways. I recently read Valiant Ambition, by Nathaniel Philbrick. This book about Benedict Arnold, George Washington, and the Revolutionary War prompted me to think deeply about the roots of loyalty and of betrayal. Is it temperament? Character? Experience? I didn’t have any epiphanies about this question, but I got new perspective. I finished the book long ago, but the questions live on.
Joy #3: Reading draws us into the beauty of language.
As my daughter wrote, “There were several times when I read such a poetic section that I would just sit there with the book in my hands and be unable to read anymore or do anything because what I had just read was so beautiful and impactful that I needed to process it to let it sink in.”
What more is there to say other than that I hope she and I both will have many more experiences like that.
The best way to raise a child who reads is to help them discover these and other joys of reading. It’s never too early to help your child begin to discover these joys; three years old is a perfect time. As they get older, there will be me many distractions and other activities beckoning for their attention. They’re far more likely to choose reading some of the time if they’ve experienced and felt these joys deeply.
Do this one thing
Think less about how to help your child learn to read, and more about how to help your child discover these and other joys of reading.
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- Daniel Willingham, Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do, p. 191.
- George Martin tweeted this on April 23, 2015.
- Willingham, p. 191.