Monday, June 9, 2008

The Fadiman Way of Raising a Reader...


In my post below, I wrote about the Fadiman family and books. The post went an entirely different way than I initially intended. I planned only to write a brief, light recommendation of the books of essays by Anne and her father, Clifton, but somehow it turned into a post on ignoring so-called age levels in reading.

While I'm at it, I think it's worth sharing Clifton Fadiman's advice for raising a reader, taken from the same essay I mentioned below, "Children, Books, and a List":

"...anxious parents of non-readers are often bewildered when I ask two questions: How many books and linear feet of book shelving does your house contain? How many hours a week can your children actually observe you reading?

"It is in the classroom that the child is actually taught to read... But his acceptance of the idea of reading takes place, usually at the age of about eighteen months, in the home-- that is, in a home where books seem, like plumbing, to be a part of life and where the child's parents are visible habitual readers. I might add that having scads of books around the home is more important than having any special books around, including the ones recommended in the lists attached to these comments.

"An early familiarity with books unconsciously introduces the child to a fundamental, liberating truth: that the largest part of the entire universe of space and time can never be apprehended by direct firsthand experience. The child who has never really understood this truth is permitted by our Constitution to be become president. But he remains, in the most literal sense, mentally unbalanced. So, if you want your children to read, the first commandment, as trite as true is: Go thou and do likewise.

"I would suggest that reading, especially at an early age, should be an integral part of life, like eating and loving and playing, indeed almost like breathing... informal and unregimented..."

One of Fadiman's questions above, "How many books and linear feet of book shelving does your house contain?", is answered about his own home by his daughter, Anne, in an essay in her book Ex Libris:

"Between them, our parents had about seven thousand books. Whenever we moved to a new house, a carpenter would build a quarter of a mile of shelves; whenever we left, the new owners would rip them out. Other people's walls looked naked to me."

And as to the question of whether or not a child sees his parents reading, Anne says of her parents:
"There must be writers whose parents owned no books, and who were taken under the wing of a neighbor or teacher or librarian, but I have never met one. My daughter is seven, and some of the other second-grade parents complain that their children don't read for pleasure. When I visit their homes, the children's rooms are crammed with expensive books, but the parents' rooms are empty. Those children do not see their parents reading, as I did every day of my childhood. By contrast, when I walk into an apartment with books on the shelves, books on the bedside table, books on the floor, and books on the toilet tank, then I know what I would see if I opened the door that says PRIVATE-- GROWNUPS KEEP OUT: a child sprawled on the bed reading."

I'm not one to encourage rampant consumerism-- buying things because they are new or hip or trendy when in reality, they often serve only to clutter our homes and lives. But books are not clutter. I decided upon this last week when I was decluttering my home. I have been weeding through all sorts of things in my drawers and boxes and closets, tossing out the excess. But the books are staying. I did give away a few (and in the past I've given away many boxes), but the rest belong here. They are too much part of our lives. They are old friends who are picked up again and again.

Building a family library is a good thing. I think it's an investment with rich returns. We helped our children build their own, personal libraries, too. We visited used bookstores and booksales and let the kids buy books. We'd take them to new bookstores, too, at one time once a month, to let them pick out a book for themselves. At birthdays and at Christmas, books were given as gifts. And now the kids continue to spend their own money on books, and their libraries grow.