Tuesday, April 15, 2008

An Inspiring Home for Learning, #4

4. Build a book-rich home. Read lots of good, living books aloud together.

The best way to rear up a new generation of friends of the Permanent Things is to beget children, and read to them o' evenings, and teach them what is worthy of praise: the wise parent is the conservator of ancient truths. As Edmund Burke put it, 'We learn to love the little platoon we belong to in society.' The institution most essential to conserve is the family. (Russell Kirk in The Conservative Mind)

Reading aloud together is a profoundly important thing for a family to do. It pulls a family together, creating a bond and building a culture in the home. We learn to love our little platoon. Books matter. And when a child learns to read for himself, he should have plentiful opportunity to read good books every day. An entire future is shaped by the books a person reads, beginning in childhood.

John Senior, in his great book The Restoration of Christian Culture, writes: "We must put our greatest effort into restoring reading in the home, first and foremost reading aloud around the fireplace of a winter's evening or on the porch of a summer's afternoon; and for the older children and adults, silent reading, each by himself as they all sit together in the living room, reading not the hundred great books which are for analytic study and mostly for experts, but reading what I shall call the thousand good books, not everyman's but everychild's library, the ordinary stories and poems we all should know from Mother Goose to Willie Shakespeare...the thousand good books for children in the nursery to the youth at college, which we read and reread all the rest of our lives."

Senior continues, "We want what Robert Louis Stevenson called 'a child's garden,' something simple, direct, enjoyable, unreflective, uncritical, spontaneous, free, romantic, if you will, with the full understanding that such experience is not sufficient unto salvation... but indispensable as the cultural soil of moral, intellectual, and spiritual growth."

As parents, it's easy to overly focus on all of the benefits of having books around and of reading aloud-- that it will make kids readers; it will advance kids educationally; it will build a moral imagination in our children; it will build virtue; it will give the children an ability to think well; and so on and so forth. All of these benefits are indeed important, but it matters first that reading should be just plain delightful for children. They should be able to read a book with no thought of its importance. We do not need to explain to them what books mean or how they should think about them.

Leave a child alone with his book. Let him simply "receive" it, as CS Lewis encourages, and do not encumber him with an "obligation to express a judgment." Lewis writes: "The clever schoolboy's reaction to his reading is most naturally expressed by parody or imitation. The necessary condition of all good reading is to get ourselves out of the way; we do not help the young to do this by forcing them to keep on expressing opinions." So, don't come between a child's mind and his reading of a book. In time, almost magically and unawares to the child (and certainly not because we tell him how to think about his books), the child will develop a unique way of reading and thinking, a moral imagination, a set of values, an education, and all of those benefits that are so often put on lists.

John Senior suggested that reading the Great Books will do nothing but produce puffed up pedants unless a child has first freely delighted in the magical books of childhood and youth. He wrote that the Great Books go flat in "minds that lack the habit of reading," and will "only properly grow in an imaginative ground saturated with fables, fairy tales, stories, rhymes, romances, adventures-- the thousand good books of Grimm, Andersen, Stevenson, Dickens, Scott, Dumas, and the rest."

A wonderful education is made up of books, but it must have as its foundation, a free and delightful poetic education. Senior and his cohorts were so convinced of this that they would actually attempt to build this foundation in college students who had been given a poetry-impoverished education. They would read children's books to them, take them out in nature, and expose them to the kind of culture and wonders we should all enjoy as children. Once a poetic view of things was established, students had a proper foundation for grappling with bigger ideas.

My son once told me that if I did two things right, it was the books and the food! :-) And since these are two of the things that matter most to me, I was very pleased by his comment.

When I had my first child, I wanted to create a book-rich environment in our home. I began reading aloud when Aimee was an infant, and I never stopped until she was almost an adult. We'd read and read and read in our home, all throughout the day. When my children could barely toddle, they'd take every opportunity to enjoy a story. If I'd sit down on the couch for a bit of rest or relaxation, it wouldn't be long before a little one would throw a pile of picture books on my lap and climb up beside me to hear some stories. I loved that.

Even when the children could read on their own (which was, for me, the most exciting educational milestone of their lives), we'd still read aloud-- in the morning, often at lunchtime, at bedtime, and sometimes in between. There were times when a book we were all reading aloud together was so engaging that the kids would ask me to read (again) in mid-afternoon (please!), and then they might plead with me for just one more chapter, then another, then another, and we might read for hours, maybe even until we'd finished the book. Every single night, when the kids were in bed and their lights were out, after the prayers and singing and conversation and good night hugs and kisses, I'd sit in the lit hallway where they could all see me, and I'd read for a long time. Often, I'd read until the first child had fallen asleep.

And every day after lunch, we'd have mandatory quiet time-- for reading or for sleep only!-- so there was an abundance of book time in our home.

We read books aloud that had us laughing all the way through (Wind in the Willows), books that made us cry (when "Little Britches" father died), books that were too sad and heavy to finish for sensitive children (The Yearling-- one of my children begged me to stop). We'd read aloud books that some people would say were not age appropriate (we reread Winnie the Pooh when my kids were teenagers). We read good books, exciting books, moving books, inspiring books. We traveled all over the world and to different worlds and through time in the pages of those books. We simply enjoyed books together!

Anna Quindlen once said, "I'd be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves. " In our home, bookshelves were everywhere, and, indeed, nothing was more exciting to the kids than to have their very own bookshelves. Now that they are all adults, bookshelves are a priority. The first thing my second-oldest, married daughter did before moving into her new apartment was to build a really nice, double wide bookshelf for her living room, and when she had her first child, one of the first things she bought for the nursery, along with a crib, was a bookshelf! And now my daughter reads and reads and reads aloud to her young sons.

Read books. Enjoy books. Collect books. Talk about books. Learn and grow through good books. Books become beloved friends. A book-rich home is a wonderful place for a child to grow up.