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A love of books is a gift of many lifetimes

October 19, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

“I cannot live without books.”
Thomas Jefferson

Perhaps one of my favorite sites at morning drop off is when children are still reading as parents pull up to the curb. Don’t get me wrong, I like seeing adults and children engaged in a conversation or jamming to music; however, I am sucker for the boy who gets out of the car still reading his book and barely looking at where he’s going or the girl who’s so much in the world of her novel that she doesn’t realize that it’s time to open the door and get out. I am genuinely curious when I ask them what they’re reading, and I love hearing their excitement as they explain the plot. Last week a third grader informed me that her goal is to read seventy books this year, and I congratulated her on this lofty aspiration. Beyond being a self-proclaimed bibliophile, why does observing children read warm my heart so much? Perhaps I am reliving the excitement of when I was young and I realized that reading opens one to a unlimited number of new places to go and people to meet. Game of Thrones author George RR Martin once had one of his characters say, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies.The man who never reads lives only one.”

As study after study has shown, reading can improve one’s attention span, patience, and vocabulary; other research demonstrates that reading literary fiction can even increase a person’s empathy. This should come as no surprise; when we’ve lived in the worlds of Jane Austen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Vikram Seth, we come to know their characters as people in our own lives, and we live out their dilemmas as if they were our own. Reading helps children grow cognitively and affectively, and as the adults in their lives, we should support it in whatever way we can.

When I was a child, my father made me a deal. As long as I was reading instead of watching television, he would buy me my books. Although I continued to go to the library, I knew I could always purchase the latest thriller or nonfiction bestseller; I held my dad to his promise until I was in my twenties. Consequently, I always had a healthy library of books I had finished and those still waiting to be read.

I thought about this bargain I had with my father who’s been dead for seventeen years now as I read a recent essay in the New York Times by Linda Huang called “All Those Books You’ve Bought but Haven’t Read: There’s a Word for That.” As Huang explains, in some ways keeping books on the shelves that we have yet to read reflects an understanding that we still have a great deal to learn. Rather than our libraries being a trophy case of those stories we completed and things we already know, our unopened books demonstrate an intellectual humility and an insatiable curiosity.

Huang points out that there’s a Japanese word-tsundoku that translates as a stack of books that one has purchased but not yet read. Maybe it’s self-rationalization, but knowing that there’s a word for this provides some relief. As my wife and I downsized in our move to San Antonio, we donated somewhere close to eight hundred books, but we still have many more on the shelves of our much smaller house, and most of those I have yet to open. In our short time here already, I have become a big fan of the San Antonio Public Library system and the Libby app for e-books and audio books. Nevertheless, there’s still something exciting about buying a new book or pulling something off one’s shelf and discovering a great piece of literature that has been just waiting for someone to open its pages.

So, if your child approaches you her arms laden with Young Adult novels and historical tales, or he says that he simply must have this new mystery or science fiction story, you might avoid the perfectly understandable response, “You still have so many books at home you haven’t read!” Just be happy that your child has an open mind and realizes that there’s an infinite amount of things to learn and know.