Growing into It: Converting Non-Readers, by an Ex-Non-Reader

This is an essay by Joseph Dante.

Most people who know even a little bit about me could probably tell you this: I love fiction in all its forms and I love writers. I’m always in the middle of a novel, always reading stories and poetry online, always recommending new things for people to read. So it almost always comes as a surprise when I mention how, as a child, I actually wasn’t the most voracious reader. I wasn’t one of those feral children who grew up in a library and were raised by books, or who stayed up late at night reading with a flashlight under the covers, only to fall asleep drooling on the pages.  In fact, I wasn’t even remotely compelled to pick up books outside of the classroom at all.

But I was always writing. When I was in elementary school, I kept several of those cheap black-and-white composition notebooks, I gave myself long, obnoxious pseudonyms on the covers, and I would jot down all the worlds and people that got stuck inside my head. I was more than dreamy-eyed, more than oblivious to people around me at that age. I really don’t know how I managed to stay focused in school and get good grades.

I had other solitary hobbies that probably made me seem a bit odd to other children my age, and looking back on it, I still find it a little surprising how I managed to hold on to any friends at all. One hobby that I remember most distinctly is that, for a while, I was obsessed with collecting marionettes from all over the world. Dad made me a makeshift puppet stage out of an old refrigerator box he was going to toss out, and Mom cut out a hole in the front as a flap and installed window curtains that I could open and close. I would write the plays and put on shows for my family (charging them admission, of course). I remember making books out of construction paper too, complete with my own crude illustrations. I remember giving one to my mom as a get-well present instead of just making her a card. So even though I wasn’t an avid reader at the time, I was always finding a way to tell my own story.

Even though my parents had always encouraged my education and creativity, I still come from a small family of very dedicated non-readers. Reading was just never an activity anyone did outside of school or work. There were never books anywhere in the house aside from photo albums or your standard set of encyclopedias. So, as it turned out, reading was a habit I had to grow into instead.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started to pick up books of my own accord. One of my high school English teachers always used to tell us how you can’t be a good writer without being a good reader, and it wasn’t until I started listening to this advice that I began to take literature more seriously. It’s always nice to have encouragement from your loved ones, but I think it took a less biased outside authority for me to really recognize my own writing skills and how reading could sharpen them. I started taking advanced English classes and creative writing, and suddenly, both reading and writing became more than just leisure activities to escape my boredom. I won a few contests and prize money for my stories, and I later went on to study English in college.

Since then, I’ve tried my hardest to get other people to read more too—whether it’s my own writing or other newly discovered writers I love to gush about.

Here’s how I’ve gotten a few of my non-reader family members to read:

1.       My teenage sister: She really doesn’t like reading books at all and it’s difficult for me to foist anything on her. However, she does love to draw and paint and is a very visual person, so I’ve managed to get her to read quite a few graphic novels I’ve fallen in love with. She also loves the Harry Potterfranchise—despite being such a dedicated non-reader—so she recently promised me she would read the series over the summer if I read along with her.

2.       Mom: Sometimes, I can very reluctantly get my mom to read things, but not often. She seems to like slice-of-life dramas that she is able to relate to in some subtle way and typically enjoys feel-good movies. A few things I’ve managed to get her to read, as an example: Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom, and The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.

3.       Nana: She’s in her eighties now, but she really loves watching things on TV that explore other cultures and time periods. Because of this, I figured she’d be more into works of historical fiction, and I was right. She especially loved The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and watched the film adaptation with me. I sometimes buy her Gothic romances by Victoria Holt at a local used bookstore too.

4.       Grandpa: He’s older than Nana, and he has a seemingly endless supply of war stories to tell. He has more of a scientific mind and doesn’t really seem to appreciate fiction all that much, but I gave him the book The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien anyway. He ended up thanking me profusely and told me he was really moved by it.

In terms of the conversion process, here are a few things I would keep in mind when trying to approach people who refuse to read:

1.       Try to focus on things that are relevant to their own interests, not yours. For example, if your little nephew likes Star Wars, maybe you can point him towards other science fiction series that may appeal to young adults. There are also plenty of fantastic comics and graphic novels being written—both online and off.

2.       If you can’t narrow them down by any specific interests, focus on their demographic. Teenagers will probably enjoy coming of age stories because they’re a lot more relevant. Adults who are more occasional readers seem to be more interested in memoirs, biographies, travelogues, and nonfiction. Keep in mind their own personal life experiences (especially what they might be going through at the time) if you can’t really break them down by genre.

3.       Don’t be too aggressive. The process of becoming a more avid, critical reader never happens over night—it’s very gradual. If they seem particularly resistant towards your efforts to foist books on them at every opportunity, try to let up and approach it a different way. Maybe they enjoy some other kind of art: photography, film, music, cooking, theatre, etc. Try to generate more discussion around these topics instead. Often, you’d be surprised by how art and media can cross over and inspire others. There are plenty of films that are adapted from novels, of course, and plenty of cultural activities that circle back to storytelling.

4.       If all else fails, try to encourage them to find more creative outlets. Everyone has an imagination and anyone can be newly inspired at any time in their life. If you’re a parent, take this into careful consideration. I’ve always been grateful for my family’s continuous support despite having to put with my strange hobbies and fictional personas. Try to work on projects together that they seem to be interested in. Let it be a mutual effort (hopefully without bribing). Helping to nurture an imagination with one esoteric hobby can always lead to accidental interest in something bigger—who really knows? Maybe you’ll see it coming from a mile away, or maybe it will be just as unexpected as the leap from a boy’s strange curiosity with marionettes to a man’s lifelong love for literature.

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Joseph Dante is a writer from South Florida. He has a blog where he talks about writing, books, and the internet, and is currently a slush reader and intern at Hobart Pulp. You can follow him on Twitter @storyforburning.

Photo:  Some rights reserved by Vimages.

8 Replies to “Growing into It: Converting Non-Readers, by an Ex-Non-Reader”

  1. Great post! You’re doing a great thing, encouraging family members to read. The Things They Carried is a great book about war. Another amazing book about war your Grandfather might enjoy is Catch 22, if you haven’t already recommended it, although satire isn’t something everyone enjoys..I grew up reading my grandmother’s Victoria Holt novels, I love them. Another similar author your grandmother might enjoy that you can find in second-hand bookstores is Mary Stewart. She has a series about King Arthur that starts with “The Crystal Cave”, but also a lot of books that follow a young female protagonist on travels in Europe like “My Brother Michael” (about Greece). Also, I recently read the first book in Lorena McCourtney’s Ivy Malone series (little old lady solves mysteries) that might be a winner for an older crowd.

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