One day about seven years ago, I was standing in the kitchen of our rented condo, my baby daughter on one hip, reading a box of Cheerios. The box came with a free book, called Digby Takes Charge, which told the story of a sheepdog becoming more effective in his work by learning to be polite. But the box itself, too, aspired to be an educational text—for parents. Not only did it provide nutritional information provided in two categories, for children under four and for the rest of us (in case I wanted to measure out an approved portion of Cheerios to be crushed over every surface in the house); the box was covered in exhortations about reading. Read Together and They’ll Read Forever! said big red letters on the back, above a laughing mom and her two laughing, reading kids. Read everywhere! said yellow script at the top of a sidebar. “Bedtime stories are a great start, but there are so many other opportunities to read to your child throughout your day.” Those opportunities include the signs at the grocery store, the book you pull out of your bag at the doctor’s office, and the instruction sheet included with board games. Then there was “Collect all 6!” with pictures of the books you might find in your Cheerios box, along with pictures of some varieties of Cheerios you might also like to collect.
As a new parent, I was recently emerged from a doctoral program where I’d studied reading practices in the early US. I had hoped to emerge from the program with a tenure-track job, but what I got instead were a brain that spits out cultural analysis whether I want it or not, the internet search skills to accurately cite a seven-year-old cereal box, and the ability to find mundane things deeply absorbing. So I pored over that Cheerios box, holding it in one hand while I bounced my daughter with the other arm, and tried to imagine reading aloud as we went about our day. Tumble dry low. Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. This website is not intended to provide medical advice.
I ought to be the kind of person who appreciates such positive messaging on my cereal boxes. My husband and I have jammed boxes of books into our hatchbacks to move them across swaths of the country, lugged them up and down countless stairs as we moved in and out of apartments. And since becoming parents, we have all but buried ourselves in children’s books. At first I put my literary training to work and tried to curate, buying books from the Ursula Nordstrom years at Harper Collins—Where the Wild Things Are, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Goodnight Moon—and elegantly sparse New England favorites, like Blueberries for Sal and Ox-Cart Man.
At baby showers and birthdays our well-read friends and family gave us cheeky board book versions of classics, in which felted dolls play Lizzy Bennett and Mr. Darcy and graphic collages zip through Moby-Dick in ten pages. There are lessons about history and social justice arranged in swooping, varied typography on bright urban collages. But then there was an onslaught of hand-me-downs, and my children’s own regrettable picks from libraries and book fairs, so that the tasteful selections have to struggle to stay afloat in a sea of dross. What we have now are two children, aged seven and five, and a jumble of poorly maintained books, from which each night we fish out 5-Minute Spiderman Stories or The Smithsonian Guide to Rocks and Minerals, then throw it back into the literary mulch as we turn out the lights.
So, in short, I am bookishly inclined, and have always expected my kids to be the same. Yet as I swayed side to side and held my daughter and read the Cheerios box, I felt not recognition, but a mix of weariness and amusement. To all the challenges of buying groceries with a baby I was supposed to add being stared at by other shoppers as I read the aisle signs aloud? And in addition to spending the entire day trying to get the dishwasher unloaded, I was supposed to be, first, owning board games, and then, reading the instructions?
During pregnancy and early parenthood, I’d noticed a lot of similar advice about the urgency of reading. A poster in my midwives’ office said I should be reading aloud to my belly while my child was in the womb; a “manual” for new dads suggested that a man could still enjoy his favorite magazines, like Sports Illustrated, by reading them aloud to an infant on his lap, who would appreciate the colorful illustrations.
But not only have I never caught my husband with a Sports Illustrated; neither our daughter nor our son had any interest in sitting on laps and looking at magazines as babies. Neither of them had any hair until they were two, and neither of them would sit still and listen to a book for at least a year. Both the baldness and the philistinism seemed to me a bit peculiar, maybe even regrettable, but pushing their reading habits seemed no more possible than trying to force their hair to grow. And as I shifted some of the dirty dishes on the table so I could put down the Cheerios box, I wondered what it would be like if it didn’t seem funny. What if I didn’t have a PhD in literature, an overflowing home library, and the cultural capital to laugh off the well-meaning messages of corporate marketing and government agencies? How stressful it might be; how inadequate I might feel.
That sense of inadequacy would, of course, catch up with me eventually. As my daughter progressed through kindergarten and first grade, she maintained a cheerful disposition and a basic disinterest in reading. Her resistance was as unexpected as the freckles establishing themselves on the bridge of her nose. I had been an early reader, one of the few kids who picks it up without much teaching; I was the one reading chapter books while my classmates learned phonics in first grade. I didn’t, on the whole, want her to be like me; those early years of school are probably better spent developing social skills than being lost in worlds of fiction, as I had been. Furthermore, I didn’t see what I was to do about it. We never miss a night of reading aloud before bed, but how I would fit in a half-hour a day to supervise reading practice I couldn’t imagine. She wouldn’t end up illiterate, I reasoned; whether she became a fluent reader in first or second or third grade didn’t really matter.
But by the start of second grade, my laissez-faire attitude was getting harder to maintain. Chance moments with my daughter’s friends showed me how far ahead of her they were in reading ability; her report cards started to be filled with the number 2—“approaching grade level,” rather than meeting or exceeding it. I did not, I reminded myself, care about this. I railed to my husband about the reading log we were supposed to be filling out daily, tallying minutes of reading and adding our signatures, for accountability. I didn’t want it to be such a chore, I said, and furthermore I had enough jobs to do without becoming a reading accountant. But I am a Goody-Two-Shoes, and for a few weeks I scribbled in approximations of reading time that I might have inflated slightly, but not enough to earn the reward of a Pizza Hut gift certificate.Being a parent means discovering how little one knows about things that once seemed obvious, and for me one of these is: Is reading important?
Then one week I forgot to do it and texted my husband to fill out the form before school dropoff. It turned out to be one of those unpredictable times when he remembered something I’d said. Instead of slightly cheating as I’d recommended, he wrote a long and rather forceful note to the teacher about how we didn’t want to do the log. She wrote back, sounding startled, that she wouldn’t send the form home anymore, and attached an unearned certificate for a personal pan pizza. I did not feel good about this, but I stopped enforcing reading time (we did take the certificate to Pizza Hut eventually, but it had expired).
Since then our daughter has spent her time as she wants to, which is riding her bike up and down the sidewalk, or listening to Harry Potter audiobooks while she assembles messy crafts in the messy room we used to call our study.
Being a parent means discovering how little one knows about things that once seemed obvious, and for me one of these is: Is reading important? I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before, but once it occurred to me, I realized I’d been asking this question for a long time. I started to struggle with it as a very young high-school English teacher, as I tried to answer my students’ constant, usually unspoken question: what’s the point? I went to graduate school with a plan of studying the use of literature in schools, but my PhD program found that topic embarrassingly pedestrian, so I studied the use of literature in early America instead. As a result, I know that the implications of the Cheerios box—that reading is the cornerstone of family, of health, of success, of equality—partake in an ideology that started somewhere around mass publication in the eighteenth century, informed the founding of the United States, contributed to the establishment of public schooling, and flowered into current ideas about meritocracy and social progress. Now I teach (contingently) in a department that tries to justify its existence with a mix of soaring declarations and sad murmurs about the timeless value of the arts, and I feel guilty about questioning the workings of fields that are already under attack from less sympathetic quarters.
In early New England, there was a clear reason that reading was crucial. The English settlers who arrived on the Mayflower and the Arbella practiced a text-based form of Christianity, insisting that each person could, and should, experience God’s word directly by reading the Bible. Learning to read, and to read well, meant the difference between salvation and its opposite. The first version of public schooling in what would be the United States was mandated in the “Old Deluder Satan Act” of 1647. It required each town to provide free reading instruction, with the stated purpose of thwarting the eponymous demon, who would try to stand between people and the truths of Scripture.
Very soon the European settlements became more diverse, but their print culture and educational practices continued to bear an evangelical stamp. The most common text for new readers was for a very long time the New England Primer, which went through at least ninety-two editions over two centuries, with total imprints numbering in the millions. The primer featured an alphabet illustrated with woodcuts—some of the only pictures a child of the era would have had access too. There was also a list of words divided into syllables, moral and biblical anecdotes, and a catechism. Over time the content shifted toward the secular, but even late editions began the alphabet with “In Adam’s fall / We sinned all.” Like much instructional material today, the Primer insisted on devotion to reading—and on its own importance. “Thy Life to Mend / This Book attend,” said the letter B; “My Book and Heart / Shall never part,” said the H (the Book was supposed to be the Bible, but the Puritans understood double entendres; the book was also the Primer). The letter F gave a harsher lesson: “The idle Fool / Is whipt at school.”
The association between reading and goodness appeared in less sectarian forms as well. Taking a step up from the crude woodcuts of The New England Primer, the English printer John Newbery (you have seen his name on book-cover medals) started making diminutive, gilt-edged “pretty books” for children that were a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. The most popular of all of them was The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes. It is a story about a poor orphan named Margery Meanwell, who has only one shoe until a kind gentleman buys her a pair, and she is so enthusiastic that she earns herself a nickname (“Goody” was an honorific, more or less equivalent to “Miss”). With nobody to take care of her, the little girl teaches herself to read and becomes a traveling tutor in her village, dispensing both reading instruction and moral precepts, having various adventures, and eventually marrying rich. The book is insistent that it’s Margery’s dedication to reading that brings about her happy ending and offers its pretty self as a means to the same, dedicating a significant number of pages to replicating her lessons. The book also, and not incidentally, represents a fairly transparent case for Newbery’s business model, which relied heavily on books for children.
I would contend that the spirit of Little Goody Two-Shoes lives on, even as her name has become a slur for obnoxious rule-followers like myself. Tiny children are encouraged to read, as early and as often as possible, with implicit promises of future success. Early literacy is both a private obligation and a public good, promoted everywhere you look.
My state (Maine) has a really lovely program called Raising Readers, which gives expertly chosen age-appropriate books to babies and toddlers. It starts with a tote bag in the maternity ward and continues at each well-child visit to the doctor until the age of 5. This program has given us a library that is oddly full of books about cows (including my children’s favorites, Cows Going Past and Cows in the Kitchen) but also, unsurprisingly, thematizes books themselves. Like the New England Primer, every alphabet book has at least one picture of a book, often in the hands of a happy child. One sweet board book, called Book, is about a child’s enjoyment of a book he receives as a gift. (That’s it; that’s the book.) It’s targeted at newborns, and the boy in the book, like the kids who were given it, is preliterate. The book is presented as a fascinating object, to be put in various places, to be shared with stuffed animals, and finally to be read aloud during a cuddle with Mom.
What I love about the Raising Readers program is that it doesn’t just lecture about the importance of reading, but actually puts the means into parents’ hands. It doesn’t, however, eschew the lecture. As in The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, the lessons about the urgency of reading are for parents as well as kids. Parental coaching—by doctors, not teachers or librarians—is built into the model: “Healthcare providers coach parents and caregivers on […] [h]ow reading out loud to children promotes healthy brain development and the early literacy skills needed for future school success,” a provider website explains. When you take your baby for a checkup, you learn that soda and screen time are bad, your carseat is probably unsafe—and that reading is crucial, like vaccinations and appropriate weight gain.The 2016 election, and what came after, generated an awareness that reading can be deployed for ill as well as good.
All of this creates a sense that the stakes of reading aren’t on the level of the individual child, but on the level of the community—a mental version of herd immunity. This has long been true. In the 17th century, reading was key to a godly community, and in the 18th, it became key to a democratic one. Laments about how Nobody Reads Like They Used To go way back; it’s entertaining to read 18th-century pundits bemoaning young people’s addiction to novels in much the same terms that current curmudgeons talk about texting or Twitter. “If it be true, that the present age is more corrupt than the preceding, the great multiplication of Novels has probably contributed to its degeneracy. Fifty years ago there was scarcely a Novel in the kingdom,” begins a 1778 essay by the English moralist Vicesimus Knox, which continues to enumerate why novels don’t count as reading in the same way older forms did (they are overstimulating, full of scandalous things, and destroy the capacity for attention and sustained thought).
A similarly gloomy spirit animates Reading at Risk, a 2002 report by the National Endowment for the Arts. “Reading at Risk is not a report that the National Endowment for the Arts is happy to issue,” writes chairman Dana Gioia. “For the first time in modern history, less than half the adult population now reads literature. Anyone who loves literature or values the cultural, intellectual, and political importance of active and engaged literacy in American society will respond to this report with grave concern.” Many people and organizations did respond with the called-for concern, leading to a variety of programs in the spirit of Raising Readers. Subsequent versions of the survey were slightly more optimistic—the 2008 version was titled Reading on the Rise—but the general sense of declension remains. The 2016 election, and what came after, generated an awareness that reading can be deployed for ill as well as good; now reading instruction tends to be framed as training in information literacy and critical thinking.
I want to be clear that I believe in this mission. I teach humanities courses to undergraduates; I facilitate reading groups at public libraries; I have seen over and over how engagement with literature leads to understanding, empathy, and exploration. What I don’t believe in anymore is the moral undertone of reading promotion: that people who read for pleasure are more good and more deserving than those who don’t.
To see how reading instruction looks in our current moment, all I have to do is dig through my recycling bin. Piled between the unread New Yorkers and the mailers in which I am supposed to send money for my children’s college savings funds are this week’s reading lessons for parents. One handout exhorts me not only to read aloud, but also to record myself reading aloud and post the video on social media with the hashtag #ReadToMe. Next week is “Read-a-Palooza” at my son’s pre-K program, for which I will have to remember to send him dressed like a book character on Wednesday, in a shirt with words on it on Thursday, and in his pajamas on Friday. My daughter will be practicing her literacy skills by reading to a therapy dog; she also has some overdue books, as I am terrible at keeping track of the days her class visits the school and town libraries. We’ve moved on from crude woodcuts and gilt edges, but the structure looks to me like the old one: a harsh message that reading is essential to success and salvation, wrapped up in play, pleasure, love.Being proud of a young reader is a bit like congratulating oneself on maintaining a plant-based diet without considering the existence of food deserts—or decades of ruinous economic and health policies, which affect us all, but not all equally.
To be devoted to books is still understood as a signal of goodness and deservingness. There are of course the bookish girls who populate the fiction read by bookish girls, from Anne of Green Gables to Hermione Grainger. We still hear bootstrap anecdotes of poor people who “got an education” and so succeeded in life, as though getting an education is available to any poorly-shod orphans who want to exert themselves. There’s no harm, and plenty of good, in encouraging reading—unless it becomes a way to write off those who don’t, or can’t, as unworthy of care or respect.
In a class I teach about criminality we read A Question of Freedom, a memoir by R. Dwayne Betts. While incarcerated from the age of 16 to 25, Betts spent much of his time reading and became a poet; years later, he holds a law degree from Yale (but was initially denied admission to the bar due to his status as a felon). Betts insists that he should not be held up as an example of the system working; his own struggle to transcend his youthful crime does not indicate that those he met while incarcerated, many of them barely literate, could do the same. Yet my students cling to his accomplishments, finding a comfortable resolution to the inequities of the justice system in the ability of a determined person to read his way to freedom.
If there’s a deeper reason behind my annoyance at being constantly, cheerfully nudged about the importance of reading it’s this: to quote my children, it’s not fair. Being proud of a young reader is a bit like congratulating oneself on maintaining a plant-based diet without considering the existence of food deserts—or decades of ruinous economic and health policies, which affect us all, but not all equally. It’s so much easier for me to raise kids who read, who turn in their homework, who have big vocabularies, than for the young single mother who lives a few doors down, or the recently immigrated family around the corner, or the parents of children with learning disabilities. When my children are successful, I will get to be proud of them, and maybe a bit proud of myself, as though it’s not our unearned circumstances that should get the credit. To take the time to sit with a child though the drudgery of the early stages, to enforce daily reading, to sit with a book to model lifelong love of learning—that is expensive time for any parent, and, like many things, it costs more if you’re struggling.
There is, I am sorry to say, not much courage in my conviction; all I do is get annoyed. I might think reading ability gets used as a tool of class stratification (often deployed by those who want the opposite), but I want my kids to do well in school, to meet or exceed grade expectations, to gain the confidence that comes from success. And I want them to have that magical experience of dropping into the world of a book, where you can try on the lives of different people, different ways of thinking and talking and being. Perhaps, though, if I’m careful, I can avoid teaching my children that their ability to read has anything to do with their goodness, or with their worth as a human.
This afternoon I’m planning to insist that my daughter read for 20 minutes, but it’s a nice day and possibly I’ll let her stay outside, collecting horse chestnuts in the neighbors’ yard or covering the driveway with chalk mermaids. We’ll end the day as always, snuggled up together to read aloud, and I’ll look down at my children’s freckles and treasure those moments of closeness as much as any parent in a public service announcement. When I pour the Cheerios for my son’s breakfast I’ll ignore the current messaging, a collaboration with FitBit to encourage healthy lifestyles, and add a splash of maple syrup.