Refine. Hone. Distill. The self is a text, too.
As I edited my way through fine art/documentary photographer Charlee Brodsky’s soon-to-be POD book illuminating the stories of recovering single moms and their children at Sojourner House (SH), one of the concepts that hit me the hardest was the luxury of a photograph. Our world is inundated with photos because of the ability to snap and share a picture of whatever we see, whether it be nonsensical or necessary. The women at SH do not have at their disposal the gift of capturing a moment, a memory, a smile — often because they cannot afford the resource of a camera or a cameraphone.
Recognizing this truth as I read through the manuscript took me to another correlation: the luxury of books and the long-term effects that the love of reading can have on one’s life.
When I was in elementary school, my mother read daily to my sister and me. We sat on our covered porch, snuggled under blankets in her bed, or piled onto the couch while she brought alive series like Little House on the Prairie or The Indian in the Cupboard, complete with voices to match characters’ speech patterns. Even before that, I was surrounded with storybooks in our home, and also had two grandmothers who read to me regularly. I was the kid who thought I could read because I memorized a book after hearing it so many times. I was also a kid who had no idea how truly lucky I was.
Many children lack access to books, let alone adults with the time or inclination to read to them. There are endless statistics and websites about illiteracy rates in our country, as well as many sources which agree on the substantial advantage given to children who are read to and who develop strong reading skills. The link is also clear between reading and one’s ability to speak and communicate effectively from an early age.
I’ve seen this phenomenon actively at work in my two-year-old nephew, Benjamin. He has been read to every day of his life, including those spent in utero, when his father read The Very Hungry Caterpillar each night to my sister’s growing stomach. Even as a newborn, whenever Benjamin fussed or cried, having this story read to him was immediately calming. Now, Ben brings books to me to read or is content “reading” quietly to himself while his mother and I talk, and every night both Mom and Dad take turns reading several books to him before bed. At ten months old, he could connect the verbalization, “What’s our rule?” to the expectation that he sit down on the kitchen floor before having a small snack. At two years old, he is speaking in short but complete sentences, and telling me “Come on, Aunt Jen, run!” as his little legs take him tearing down the hallway toward his room and more books.
Yet, as I read to Benjamin his favorite Goodnight Moon or Tails (complete with interactive textures and movement), I think about the mind-numbing multitude of children who will never have this luxury, and the possible play-out of consequences, whether it’s an unsuccessful and unpleasant educational experience, lack of confidence in conversational skills, or another person who is added to the statistics about poverty or incarceration.
Of course, there is resource after program after donation campaign geared toward recognizing and eliminating this inequality. There are more sites than I can link to which talk about the necessity of the parent-child reading relationship, and how this activity will give your child essential skills in so many arenas. But I have to ask all of us lovers-of-language, those of us who know the joy of reading and writing (and editing!), is it enough? As our country slides steadily down a slope away from the #1 spot in education (among many other things), if reading can be shown as a crucial element in successful education and a flourishing future, what else can we do? Can we not organize readers willing to volunteer their voice at local afterschool programs? Can we not take a cue from NYC’s Fiction Addiction, and call on writers of children’s books to become frequent readers as well? I owe a great debt to every person and every book which fostered in me the love of reading, without which I wouldn’t be where I am today, and it seems, to me, an inexcusable disservice to each child who is deprived of that same opportunity.