Katherine Ladny Mitchell
Learning to Read (Again): Rekindling My Burnt-Out Relationship with Books
Sometimes people assume if I love writing then I must also love reading. Truth is, my relationship with reading has been about as steady as a bipolar thermostat, ranging from fireside warm to Antarctic frigid.
My mother taught me how to read before I entered Kindergarten, so books naturally sparked my fancy. As a child, I loved stories because they drew me into new worlds and captivated my imagination. I trotted on cobblestone streets with Black Beauty, rode in the covered wagon with Laura Ingalls, fenced with the three musketeers, and discovered Lucy’s mysterious wardrobe wood amid the printed pages. All I needed for an afternoon of adventure was a good novel and a glass of orange juice by my side. Reading was joy.
In middle school, my English teacher challenged us to read a new book every two weeks, further igniting my enthusiasm for reading. She let us choose our own titles and share our reports creatively through song, drama, and art. I delighted in tales of elven battles, angel/demon conflicts, and time-and-space travels. My classmates even introduced me to Terry Brooks’ and John Grisham’s works — pretty thick novels for a bunch of gangly twelve year-olds. My love of reading burned brightly … until high school darn near smothered it.
In high school, reading became work.
Most books we studied focused on the futility of life, disillusionment with the American Dream, and the bitterness of war. Authors spent hundreds of pages decrying societal problems but often failed to offer meaningful solutions. I could not relate to characters who went through life angry at the world they couldn’t change or lived aimlessly without discovering hope or significance.
I often read with the resignation of a dentist patient — but without the bright smile to show afterward.
Except for one brief respite into the British classics for assigned summer reading (which we hardly discussed in the fall), high school had all but snuffed out my love of literature.
College did not improve things. Graduation required mastery of facts, not love of story. Books were piles of pay dirt to be shoveled and sifted through, hopefully yielding a few nuggets of information I could then assimilate and present for a grade. Such reading was not all bad; it challenged my thinking and sharpened my communication skills. Some books even peaked my interest. But reading was no longer the relaxing pastime of childhood; it had become a rigorous mental workout. By the time I graduated, I was tired and burnt out on books.
Years after college, my reading regimen consisted mainly of the backs of cereal boxes, tabloids I scanned while waiting in line, my monthly Tea Time Magazine, and Scripture. I respected women who actually read beyond the book jacket and even tried to stir up the ashes of my interest in reading by leading a Jane Austen book club with a friend. But I soon had to confess, along with Elizabeth Bennet, that:
“I am not a great reader and I have pleasure in many things.”
For me, those things included raising toddlers, dabbling in writing, trying to exercise more, and vegging out on TV. It was much easier to get entertainment onscreen than off the page. At one point, my book club co-leader asked if I’d finished Northanger Abbey shortly before the next meeting. I told her I’d started it, which was technically true --
I’d gotten to page 2. After that, I wrote myself off as “more of a writer than a reader” and assumed I would never be disciplined enough to read for fun again.
Then that same friend stoked my literary curiosity with the book, Peter and the Starcatchers, a prequel to Peter Pan. At the time, I thought anyone who piggy-backed off a classic piece of literature didn’t have the brains to come up with an original story. But my friend raved about the novel — and she was an English teacher, too. So my husband and I borrowed the book. It was below our reading levels, but considering that my level of reading was practically nil, it was prudent to start with an easy read. To my surprise, the pages flipped quickly and I lost myself in the island adventure, dodging the crocodile, parrying with pirates, and zipping through the air. It had been so long since I’d connected with an enchanting story. Sometimes I even nudged Jason to “just finish the next chapter” late into the night. My desire to read flickered back to life.
It’s always easier to read a book that won’t let you put it down.
Before we knew it, we’d read the whole Starcatchers series and starting reading other books aloud together — particularly murder mysteries. Their intriguing plots and entertaining puzzles further rekindled my literary flames and blazed a trail from YA literature to more mature novels. I also rediscovered children’s lit as I read my childhood favorites aloud to my kids, often gaining new insights into the stories I thought I already understood. When I started teaching English, I got the excuse to tackle novels I’d missed while growing up. I can proudly say I read Charlotte’s Web, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and The Wizard of Oz for the first time as an adult. Going to the library felt like Christmas morning, and my heart warmed to see my kids excited to read themselves.
Over the years, I’ve grown in my confidence to handle more challenging books and, partially because several people I knew had already read it, I recently completed the longest novel of my life: The Brothers Karamazov. I’d always assumed such tomes were beyond my reading ability and reserved for the truly intellectual. I never thought I’d be able to crack a book with such a wide spine, but I surprised myself and even enjoyed much of Dostoevsky’s dialog. It felt good to cultivate my mind without having to meet a deadline, write a paper, or make a grade.
I still don’t consider myself a great reader, and I still have pleasure in many things. But I’m happy to say one of those pleasures now includes reading. Writing experts always advise reading as a means of enhancing one’s own writing, and I agree. But reading good stories is also a means of enhancing one’s own life. Reading encourages mindfulness, gives us new perspectives, stimulates our imaginations, and helps us empathize with real life characters. Plus, reading can be fun! And remember, you writers out there, that only a reader can bring your writing to life.
Without reading, writing is meaningless.
So to anyone else who hasn’t read a novel since high school, or to the writer who hasn’t been on the receiving end of words in a while, I would encourage you to pick up a book that sparks your fancy. You just might rekindle your interest in reading.