Why Do We Read?
I learned to read when I was two or three. There are family stories about this: That I taught myself to read. That
when I was two - and a tiny child for two, at that - my mother brought me to the post office and I freaked everyone out by pointing at the door and reading, “Exit.” That by three, I was reading sentences (and after that there was no stopping me). I don’t think I taught myself to read exactly. I don’t know what happened; apparently I just sucked it
in through my pores. I’ve met a lot of other people who had the same experience.
You know who had a different experience? My brother. I remember being totally baffled because he didn’t want to read. He didn’t like reading. He struggled with learning to read until he was seven or eight, and resisted it tremendously because of that struggle.
My son struggled too. It was obvious to me that he was struggling because he carried so much shame and fear around reading. He had suffered through a lot of emotional abuse from his birth family (and, for a while, from a simultaneously high-pressure and neglectful preschool with a lot of violent bullying) and he couldn’t bear the
pressure of reading, the fear that if he couldn’t read a word it meant he was stupid. Imagine (if you’ve never experienced that) pushing through that fear anew with almost every word on the page: wanting to try it, thinking you can get it, and then the tidal wave of fear telling you every horrible thing you’ll prove if you “mess up,” and the
drowning shame of not being able to try and feeling that you’ve proven each of those fears right. With each fucking word.
I don’t know if that’s anything like what my brother experienced. The terrible thing, of course, is that besides all the emotional and performance pressure I know both of them experienced, there stands the truth that they were perfectly fine where they were. Seven or eight is a totally reasonable, healthy age, developmentally,
for children to learn to read. I could see that without all the intense emotional struggles from the abuse, my son could have learned to read many years before; he was nearly there when he was three, but each hop and leap forward resulted in tremendous fear for years. But there was nothing for him to fear; he was fine where he was. It’s just that he had already been taught the exact opposite of that truth.
Both of them are enthusiastic readers and incredible writers, now, one at 27 and one at 10 years old. Which is a huge relief to me, because when I was growing up, books were my salvation, and I wanted my son to be able to have that too.
She Reads Books wrote recently about the question of why we read. There are a million reasons, of course, for any reader. But I think there are also reasons particularly related to abuse.
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