Building a Family Reading Culture, 1: On a Home Library

As we’ve been paring down our belongings in preparation for another move, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a book a keeper, and what I’m trying to do with our collection.

J and I come at this, as so many things, from opposite directions (ENTP and ISFJ over here!). Once J has bought or been given a book, it will live with us for all of time. I’m pickier. After several years of circ desk work and a bit of interlibrary loan duty, I know that I can get most books again from the library, should I really need them, so I try mostly to keep books that I can’t easily request (particularly Christian stuff) or expect to re-read or foist on friends.

New York Times column my mom sent recently came at just the right time. It cites a 2014 study that found the quantity of books — not quality of books, or access to a library — was the strongest predictor of reading performance. Sheer numbers matter — the sweet spot landing between 100 and 500, and giving the kids of bookish families up to 2.2 years’ head start on their classmates. The study doesn’t venture to determine whether it’s simply the presence of books at home or parents demonstrating bookworm behavior that accounts for the advantage, but the author, Teddy Wayne, argues, “To a child, a parent’s dog-eared book is a sign of a mind at work and of the personal significance of that volume.”

Historically, we have a book storage problem. Also, I am a bad librarian and sort by color. Sue me.

These findings reassure me because even in the face of moving I keep bringing home books for Scout and Pippin from thrift stores and book sales and anywhere I stumble across them — though I’m more selective for myself, given that I am mostly reading e-books in this nursing stage, and that I read a lot of bad books serendipitously in 2015.

Now, as I sift through our books in an attempt to downsize, I try to ask myself if this is a book I’d like my children to be able to find on the shelves in a decade or so. My parents, inheritors of my grandfather’s professorial library and collectors in their own right for my mom’s English Ed MA, always let me browse freely, and in this way, I picked up Animal Farm, and at the encouragement of my mom, both Pride and Prejudice and Alas, Babylon — two books I’ve read literally dozens of times since. Even now, there’s something special about reading the old, worn copy of Vanity Fair or Bleak House with my grandfather’s typewritten quiz as a bookmark or my mom’s tiny marginalia packed all around the story.

Not my books, as I don’t read Japanese. Just beautiful, though.

I see now that the Like Mother, Like Daughter post I meant to link to is also a response to the NYT column, and in it, Leila Lawler argues, “If you have all sorts of books,  you are outsourcing your task of teaching the children everything — which is a pretty good idea. What a relief! And that leaves you free to pursue your own interests. In turn, pursuing your own interests leads to a richer environment in the home, which furthers the education of the children.” As we feel our way toward homeschooling, it’s a reassuring thought: accumulate the books, model reading, and leave the rest to them.



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