I’m an editor at a book publishing company, so I don’t get to read many books for fun anymore. Believe me, the irony is not lost on me. I do love getting paid to read, but I’d still do it for free if I had to. Always been that way.
A reader. People called me that back in the old days — and they didn’t always (or usually) mean it in a nice way, either. Was I a reading rebel? Oh yeah.
I had flashlights yanked from my hands when I sneaked books under the covers after bedtime. By my own parents. When I was a teenager, I perfected the art of reading obnoxiously. I would read while walking from the car to the door, from my room to the supper table, even down the crowded school hall between classes. I read all the damn time.
Later, I read entire books while coming home from college. While I was driving the car. I could have killed somebody. I might have killed somebody. I’ll never know. My nose was always in a book.
I married a reader. I read to my kids when they were little.
Then one day I came to a horrific realization forced on me by the facts before my very eyes.
My kids do not like to read.
I have a girl and a boy. Neither is a natural reader. They don’t particularly like books. They can take ‘em or leave ‘em, and usually they leave ‘em.
Never did I dream that I could have children who weren’t big time readers. It seemed genetically, archetypically impossible. I guess if I hadn’t had my nose stuck in a book all the time, I wouldn’t have been so surprised.
Now, I could have come to terms with this state of affairs. I could find peace with the fact that, while I may not have whelped readers, both are incredibly smart and creative kids who do well academically and blow out the Iowa tests and such.
You’ve always had doubts about the worth of the novel, anyway, I might tell myself. Aren’t novels merely artistic holdovers from the dawn of the industrial revolution? They had their heyday in the nineteenth century, but what purpose do they serve today? Since radio and movies were invented, haven’t they been about as culturally relevant as new opera and modern poetry — that is, not very? The contemporary novel in the hands of most practitioners today is a joke, a public indecency, a mildewed ear. Do you really want to subject your kids to a bunch of yucky mildewed ears?
Yeah, well. True enough. But “A Wrinkle in Time” ain’t a mildewed anything. Neither is “Emma,” “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” “The Hobbit,” “Little House on the Prairie,” or “Moby-Dick.” And, as you know (if you are a reader), the list goes on.
So the answer is hell no. My kids will read. Even if it kills me. Even if it kills them.
Metaphorically speaking. By which I mean literally.
I tried nice. Nice didn’t work. I decided it was time to man up and be a dad. A reader dad. Rebel. Hard-ass. Tinpot martinet!
And that has been working for the past few months.
They may hate me for it. They may be traumatized for life. But at least my son can never say he didn’t read “Misty of Chincoteague” when he was young. My daughter cannot claim to have no opinion on “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.”
And when my plan stops working, which all dad plans do at some point, I’m not going to give up.
I’ll just go darker.
Here are the rules I laid down.
There will be no mercy. Wailing and gnashing of teeth is acceptable, and even encouraged. Let it out! Then get to reading. Will you thank me someday? Who cares? I’m doing this to get a card for the big library in heaven when I die — where God’s ministering angels will finally give me the patience to plough through “Remembrance of Things Past.”
There will be a quiz. Every six chapters. Every time. Written. Judged. Enforced. Unfortunately for you, I know that you are not stupid, so if you fail the quiz that means you have not read the chapters. And if you are found wanting, the consequences will be almost unimaginably draconian. Don’t know that word, “draconian”? Let me give you an example …
Not reading or failing a quiz means no wi-fi, and no devices. For every day until you can pass that quiz. I understand this will cut your mother and me off, too. We’re willing to go there. Okay, maybe Mamma a bit less than me … but whatever. We’ll be fine. We grew up before the internet. Will you be fine? I don’t think so.
There will be no excuses of logistics or format. I will provide you with the book I want you to read in all the forms you could possibly use. You’ll have it in print. You’ll have the ebook for your Kindles or minis or whatever. You’ll have the audiobook, which you can download or get Alexa to read aloud.
When all else fails, I will make you sit there following along while I read to you. Minute after minute. Hour after hour. This won’t be like reading before bed, where it’s cute that you fall asleep before the end of the chapter. Oh no. If you start to look drowsy, I’ll belt out “Let it Go” from “Frozen.” At the top of my lungs. You know I can do it, too. You drummed the words into my head when you were little. You shall become your own destructor!
CODA: So you see my darlings, I have given up on making you love reading. I realize I can’t control whether you will be a reader when you grow up, either. But I can make sure that you will be a person who has read a book or two. And there is one humble truth that you will eventually learn, one way or another. By creating these rules for reading, I’m going to help you learn it sooner rather than later.
It’s a simple truth really.
There are some fates worse than reading a book. And if you don’t finish “Johnny Tremain” by Thursday, you’re going to find out what they are.