Missing: Fifty Books

“A child is more likely to go to college if that child comes from a home where there are fifty books.”

When I first heard that statement from an MFA lecturer, I thought, “Big deal. Everybody has books.” Then she went on to quote a study which found that many African-American children lived in homes where this threshold was an impossibility.

That discussion stayed with me. Big, hard-back, thirty-nine year old woman that I was, it had never entered my mind that there were homes in the Western World with no books in them.  I had been naïve. And that realization left me feeling implicated or even…accused.

As I typically do in such situations, I decided to research the point. Google led me to a 2010 article at sciencedaily.com entitled, “Books in home as important as parents’ education in determining children’s education level.” The article quoted from a 20-year study conducted by the University of Nevada, Reno which found that children of lesser-educated parents benefit the most from having books in the home. Having as few as twenty books in the home still has significant impact on propelling a child to a higher level of education, and the more books you add, the greater the benefit.

Well, guess what. I am a “child of lesser-educated parents” and the first in my family to obtain a “higher level of education.”

So again, I felt this research was saying something important to me, about me.

I tried to recall how many books there had been in our home while I was growing up. More than twenty? More than fifty? A hundred? I really couldn’t say for sure but I realized the books that did live with us were mine, i.e. bought specifically for me, e.g. children’s books, school books, a World Book Encyclopedia set.  I couldn’t assert a claim, though, that I was born into a home with a pre-existing book collection. I couldn’t remember ever seeing my parents reading books.

Wait…what? Had I really never seen my mother and father reading?

Then I remembered: newspapers. They read newspapers. All the published newspapers: dailies, weeklies, informative, smutty – ALL. I remembered Daddy coming home with a thick wad of “papers”, and he and Mummy changing and exchanging as they worked their way through the pile. I remembered him sending me to the neighbourhood “parlour”, up the street, to buy papers: Express, Guardian, Mirror, Bomb. I remembered being scolded during weekends and school vacations, “Look, move from in front that damn TV. You read the papers for the day yet? No. But you watching cartoon.”

Papers was Life. It was how my parents stayed on the pulse of things. It was how they knew what the Government was doing and not doing. It was how they could confirm “Mr. So-and-So dead.” And which store was going into receivership, and which had sale.

As I got older, my parents didn’t have to force me to read the newspapers anymore – I wanted to.

Papers was Big-People Thing. It was what adults – even my barely literate grandmother – did. Oh, to mimic them: to crack back on the couch with a long-ass Guardian newspaper covering almost my entire little body. Oh, to know the things the adults knew, to be able to secretly break the codes of their tongue-in-cheek conversations.

Yes, reading storybooks fueled my creativity and imagination. But seeing my parents read the newspapers fueled my appetite for knowledge.

What happens now in 2017? When my little daughter lives in a house where we buy no newspapers because we get our news online.  What happens in houses where parents are avid readers, have the latest Kindle or the latest tablet with Kobo and Goodreads and all the latest reading apps and hundreds of saved e-books? What happens when there is a virtual library in the home instead of a tall bookshelf? You know…the kind you have to dust and polish as part of your weekend chores, the kind where you have to care for the spines and tape up the torn pages and find the missing dust-jackets.

What happens when our children never see us staring at a page for as long as we stare at the screen?

I wonder what the research says about that.

 

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