Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Mon, 28 Sep 1998 16:43:50 -0400 (EDT)
Random Thought: Get Them To Read

When I was a child in the 1940s, I cut my reading teeth on what purists heckle as "popular culture", on what they hiss at as "garbage." I read comic books. I read almost nothing else until I was about ten and picked up my first Hardy Boys volume. Every Thursday afternoon, I would slide down three flights of banisters in our tenement, do an excited broken field run down the sidewalk, brushing aside people, to the newsstand at the corner of Delancy & Ludlow Streets with about a dollar worth of nickels and pennies noisely jangling in my pocket, pour through the new issues of my favorite comic books, eyes wide open in amazement, and return with a hoard of twenty comics strong tucked securely and happily under my arm. Among them were always "The Flash," "Archie," "Captain Marvel," "Green Lantern" "The Shadow" "Batman," "Men at War," "Superman", "Scrooge McDuck" and the Disney family, and Bugs Bunny along with the other Looney Tunes cast. As soon as I got home, I would plop down in the middle of the living room floor and read them all that day, entering an hynoptic trance that closed off the real word, hardly moving a muscle except to turn the page and get the next comic book. There were times my mother would put a mirror to my mouth to make sure I was still alive. I then would spend the rest of the week rereading them as well as those from previous weeks that still survived, longing for the next Thursday. I was mesmerized by the pictures; they led my captured eyes and mind to the words in the white verbal clouds that drifted around the mouths. I read them lying on the living room rug, stomach down, chin resting on my cupped palms, balanced by my elbows; I read them on my bed, at times on my back holding them high above me, at other times draped over a pillow. I read nothing else in the toilet--had a special stack of old favorites piled there. I read about my champions while I ate my breakfast of champions. I munched my lunch sandwich to the rhythm of my excited heart beats. I hid them away and read them secretively at school. Lost a few that were discovered. I rolled them in my back pocket and took them with me wherever I went. I read them by the beam of a flashlight hidden under the covers way pass my bedtime. I had an ever-resuppplied three foot tottering stack of them secured in a corner nook kitchen cabinet. Governed by the Law of Use, the covers fell off and, despite the advances of scotchtape, soon vanished, pages loosened themselves from their stapled anchors and soon disappeared, remaining pages got torn. I read and re-read them until they fell apart in my hands or crumbled from old age.

The culture police, instead of trashing those comic as trash, ought to have praised them. They opened my world to other worlds, fertilized my imagination, and created an appetite to read that to this day is yet to be satiated. For me, the fantasies of the comics paved the way for a host of now nameless children illustrated books which my parents read to me nightly and then later I read to them nightly (After they closed the door, up went the covers, out came my flashlight and comic books). Barbar The Elephant and Dr. Seuss were my favorites. I still read Dr. Seuss. He is still among my favorite authors. Soon I graduated to the Hardy Boys and then to the Landmark Books, and then on to the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Greek mythology.

In my house, I had additional reading aides. There were shelves in the sunroom filled with books and something new called paperbacks that at the beginning each dinner we ran to in search of resolving the inevitable heated discussion triggered by one of my father's questions. I was sixteen before I knew my mother could cook a hot meal.

My parents were voracious readers. Each week the mailman would arrive at our mailbox, bending under the weight of magazines. Each month came the selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. There was the daily newspaper, National Georgraphic, Life, Colliers, Readers Digest.. The latest issues were strewn on the cocktail table or in a chair or about on the floor. When I wasn't engrossed in my comics, I would casually glance at Life or Collier or National Geographic. Soon, my nose was stuck in them. I first looked at the pictures, but, like my comics, they led me to the captions and then to other words. I tore out and made scrap books of those pictures. I read the words over and over again of the attention grabing Life series on prehistoric earth, on ancient civilizations, and the Collier series on space travel. Tore them out and saved them.

Each Sunday, the living room floor was decopaged with the Sunday Times while I listened to the Comic Weekly Man on radio and followed his every word with the comics section of the Daily News in front of me.

Then, a black, ominous cloud gathered about me. And, the depressing rains came down threatening to dampened my growing excitement with words and nearly drowned it out in a torrential downpour of boredom and lifelessness. I had to take English in school! In high school and college, like some self-appointed literary police, my English teachers angrily denounced my comics and those magazines--except for National Georgraphic--as trash; they dragged me kicking and screaming toward the deadly boring and dull literature of high culture: "Silas Marner", "Great Expectations", "Tale of Two Cities", "Macbeth" and that god awful and convoluted "The Ambassadors." In their hands, reading threatened to become a chore, an assignment, war, loathsome. In their hands, "The Odessy" was anything but, "Great Expectations" wasn't, "Midsummer's Dream" was a nightmare, and a "A Tale of Two Cities" was a mental Sodom and Gomorrah. To survive, I first was forced to read--kinda. I acutally skimmed, read what we called Ponys, and to my saving grace discovered Classics Illustrated. I had to answer boring and meaningless "what does it say" essay questions or lifeless "who was" and "what did he say" and "what did he do" short-asnwer questions, or fill in the term identification blanks or memorize and perform soliloquys, "To be or not to be..." or "out, out damned spot...." "It is a far better thing I do...." And those textbooks? I'll just say that I never met a textbook I liked. Readability and interesting just did not seem to be synonomous with scholarly. Textbook is just a term that means reading kiss of death. Need I say more.

The experience of my first book report in English class was that of a verbal book burning. Like a rabid mob chanting, "trash, trash, trash" as they hurled accusing fingers at me, my teacher rejected Arthur Conan Doyle's "Hound of the Baskervilles." Her instructions were to write a book report about a book I had read and liked. She didn't tell me that she had to approve of it. I failed that book report because the book wasn't "good enough." Sherlock Holmes? With his vice like logic, showing me how to notice the importance of the apparent insignificant? How to reason? The "Hound of the Baskervilles" wasn't "good enough?" My second book report was also tossed into the fire because I took the teacher at her word and chose the first book I had read in its entirty. Of course, she didn't think that a murder mystery like Ellery Queen in Erle Stanley Gardner's "The Greek Coffin." that took me down alleys of deductive reasoning qualified as a "book." I failed that book report, too. Now all this took place at the country's top rated high school of the late fifties!!

There was no fun, no excitement, no adventure, no life. But, I had learned to love to read in spite of them and went off on my own literary trails. Thank goodness for the Hardy Boys and Landmark Books. I started reading and collecting the Ballentine books on World War II, and therein began my interest in history. So valuable were they to me, I would cut out squares of cardboard and scotchtape them as reinforcements for the flimsy covers. They still fill the top shelves in my office. I even read on my own the forbidden "Battle Cry", "My Gun is Quick", "Peyton Place", and "Lady Chatterley's Lover" as I searched for the "good" pages to crimp. I still remember that it was p. 253 in Battle Cry that had the "dirty parts." Oh, I can't forget those camouflaged copies of "Playboy!!"

My point is that the notion that young Americans can access the Western or global cultural heritage only through a defined set of serious books is wrong. The notion that our common cultural heritage is locked up in musty old literary classics that people praise and display but rarely read is almost comically absurd. No, the denunciation of "pop" reading and the proclamation by purists that children need to read the great literary books in the original misses the point.

Maybe they do need to read these great works. Of course they do. Eventually. But first, get them to read.

I think what matters most is that they read. Read anything. Read any matter avidly enough to make reading matter, to make reading matter enough that reading, thinking and writing become second nature. I don't care what they read. I don't care if they read "literature" or "trash" or "serious" stuff or Harloquin novels or westerns or sports books or whatever pulp. I just want them to read.

It doesn't really matter what they buy as long as they buy into reading. I don't care if they handle a book, go to television, or search the web as long as they get turned in to reading. My youngest son learned to first read by looking at Seseme Street and ELectric Company and Mr. Rogers.

I don't care if the kids read Shapespeare or Dr. Seuss or Judy Blum or only the sports section or whatever; I don't care if it is written by a white male, a black female, a homosexual, a lebsbian, a latino, an Asian-American, Buhdist, or whomever. I don't care if they read words in pages or on screens; I don't care if there must be pictures to grab their interest, stir their curiosity, excite imagination. I just want them to read.

This simple principle is lost on too many educators and holier-than-thou guardians of American, Western, or whatever culture..

From an educational standpoint, what matters most is that the children engage in whatever they read early and deeply enough for it to become as natural as breathing. Whether it is "literature" or "trash" or "popular" or "pulp" makes little difference.

So, if its important that too many children are growing up without anything to read at home, if it matters that children master reading by third grade and become independent readers by fourth grade or they are lost, then stop arguing what is "literature" and what is "trash." Save fighting the War of the Books for a professional conference. Duel to save the honor of culture against the commoners for something to say and do at a cocktail party--martinis at twenty paces--along with a debate of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

The only relevant problem is how to get children to read, write ,and think. A lot of people will argue that to do that is not that simple. It is that simple. The answers are simple: blitz them. Blitz them early and get reading materials, any reading material, into their hands and into their homes before first grade with whatever method works to get that reading stuff there.

Make it a good day. 


Louis Schmier           
Department of History    
Valdosta State University
Valdosta, GA  31698                        /~\    /\ /\
912-333-5947                       /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
                                  /   \__/     \/  /     /\ /~      \
                            /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\
                          -_~     /  "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\
                             _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -\____

Return to The Complete Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier
Return to the Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier
Return to Arbor Heights Elementary School