I’ve been teaching college freshmen for more than ten years now – first as a graduate instructor in Rhetoric and General Education Literature and now as an English professor at a small liberal arts school. There have been countless sections of “required” writing and literature classes, and at the beginning of each one I asked the students to reflect on their development as readers and writers. I’ve learned a lot of stories about influential teachers and books, and I’ve also heard about struggles and frustrations and unfinished books. Each semester, I hear about parents or teachers who used reading as a chore or even punishment – as in, “You can’t play with your friends because you need to stay inside and read.” Or, even: “You can watch tv and have fun once you’ve suffered through twenty minutes of reading this novel.” How can I expect my 18-year-old students to be excited about reading with me when they’ve always seen it as something standing in the way of “real” life or fun?
For me – and, thankfully, countless others that join me in my classroom – reading has served more as an escape from something stressful or difficult: a calm in the storm of a busy week, a distraction from a stack of difficult homework, a way to relax after a long day. I’m sure a childhood of reading as a reward, rather than as a chore, helped mold me into the English professor I am today – one who keeps trying to introduce skeptics to the wonderful world of fiction and story.
And, I still use reading as a reward. This weekend, I ran my second half marathon. It was the culmination of months of training: making time for long runs after days full of meetings and classes and grading, experimenting with pace and nutrition, working on breathing and self-motivation. In the days leading up to the race, it all felt very intense and overwhelming; I was furiously grading three classes of papers, writing up a sabbatical leave proposal, and cleaning my house for the impending visit by my parents (as well as, of course, attempting to get enough sleep and stay hydrated). I promised myself that my own personal “prize” for surviving the busy week would be to start reading a new novel sitting on my coffee table. Somehow it relaxed me to know that a new novel – a fresh new group of people to meet, a new story to emotionally connect to – would be waiting after I ran 13.1 miles.
Today, my legs are a bit stiff, and I’m now making a to-do list for the week and cleaning up after my fan club/visitors…but I’m also happily reading The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. That’s almost as wonderful of a reward as the race medal hanging on the wall behind me.