The Passionate Reader


What makes a reader?

I was always a reader, but when I look back at my earliest reading, the hunger to escape into the book was balanced out by the message in the books given me, or the grim setting. I had little access to books, so pretty much had to take what I could get and an awful lot of what people saw fit to put into the hands of kids in the early fifties was Lesson stories.

For my seventh birthday I was given Black Beauty, which I did enjoy, though I was full of questions about aspects of Victorian life that no one could answer, and they got impatient with me for being a pest.

I was also given an exquisitely illustrated copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, which I dutifully read, but I remember sitting there in my room deciding I’d only make myself read one story a day. And the next day, if nothing better had come along to read I’d brace myself for the next depressing story in which little girls never had happy endings.

Of course I had to read them all. The book was there, and nothing else was at hand once I’d worked through Black Beauty a couple of times. The only reward I felt for plowing dutifully through Andersen was the luminous illustrations.


A year or so later, our babysitter brought over Enid Blyton’s Castle of Adventure. That surprised me, as she was a typical teen of that period—squealed over Fabian, begged her mother for lipstick and starched petticoats, talked about rock’n’roll and boys. Spelled her name Judi, with a big heart over the ‘i’. She was most definitely not a reader. But here was this book!

The story was everything I wanted: kids with no parents, girls getting to adventure as much as boys, no drippy patriotic or moral message in that inimical fifties way of “do what I say, but if you do what I do you’ll be in trouble,” and funny stuff as well as action.

The bad guys got defeated, satisfying my thirst for justice (see above about “do as I say”) What joy! What bliss!

In later years, I figured that this had to have been a tactical move. We were horrible brats. A year or so later (I started babysitting really young) I began to realize belatedly just how horrible we were. And being the eldest, I was the ringleader, the sneakiest and worst.

kid reading 2

Tactic or happenstance, Judi’s ruse worked like gangbusters—one down, leaving the easier seven and four year old to conquer.

I smacked into that book, crouched on the very edge of my bed like an owl. Why I didn’t just relax on the bed I don’t know, but ever afterward I would perch on the edge of my bed, toes hung over the mattress, chin grinding into my bony knees, when I read…I suspect my rotten eyesight was kicking in around then, and I had to get the pages closer to my face.

There was no keeping me out of the library, once I found out where it was.

reading on train

There are a lot of fascinating books on the subject of why people read. Here are a couple that spoke to me.

medieval saint

One is by Mark Turner, who incidentally is the model for Gen in Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia series—he’s a professor of cognitive science, and has written The Literary Mind: the Origin of Thought and Language

In it, he maintains that fables and story telling are not peripheral, but basic to human thought.

There is also the charming, fascinating work by Brian Boyd, who maintains in On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction  that art derives out of play, and encourages sharpening of the mind as well as cooperation. His book illustrates how enduring artists arrive at what he calls cognitive universals, the intrinsic magic that appeals to so many of us not only at one time, but across generations.

boy reading

I think one of the main reasons why we enjoy fiction is because it permits us to exercise, or play with, our cognitive adaptability without real life stakes, risks, or obligation.

That’s not to overlook sheer enjoyment, curiosity, and imagination. And for many of us, as Tolkien says, escape, consolation, and eucatastrophe.

But the fact is, we humans are all about story.

We are surrounded by story, whether it’s in the form of the “news” or ads (the fastest and most effective forms of fiction ever invented) and even sports events.

The game might be metaphor for story, but fans follow the ups and downs in the lives of the sports stars with every bit as much intensity as they are involved with their own family and friends.

As for what makes a reader, the longer I live, the more I’m convinced that the impulse is either there or not, from the gitgo. Readers read often because they can’t help it; when idle, they read signs and cereal boxes. I was traveling with a very sophisticated reader not long ago, who read out loud every ad sign we passed though everyone else in the car had no problems reading.

Homer, centuries BC

Homer, centuries BC

I know I read everything with words from an early age—I’m told I began reading before I was two. I do remember struggling with mastering the spelling and grammatical stew that is English, to the impatience of the adults around me, and I was definitely reading by the time I went off to kindergarten.

I read everything—I ever began making my own books out of paper towels when I was six—but the intense pleasure in reading happened as I described above.

Most of us who have that whatever-it-is became readers at an early age, but I’ve met people who through various circumstances didn’t meet with books, or the right books, until later, and after that there was no turning back.

If you’re an inveterate reader, can you remember the first book that made you passionate?



The Passionate Reader — 25 Comments

    • Oh, yes. That was the first book that made me break my promise not to read during classes in junior high. (I’d always read during class in grammar school, but I promised myself now that I was with the big kids I’d pay attention. I think that lasted about a month, until a neighbor loaned me her son’s copy of A Wrinkle in Time.

  1. One of the main reasons why we enjoy fiction is because it permits us to exercise, or play with, our cognitive adaptability without real life stakes, risks, or obligation.

    I wholeheartedly agree with this–it’s one of the reasons I read, as well as being able to see colorful, magical places in my mind. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, the first book that really caught my imagination (after Harold and the Purple Crayon) was Mary Downing Hahn’s Wait Till Helen Comes. It’s a ghost story, and it thrilled me to no end. I found every other Hahn book my library had, most of which were depressing, and none of which sparked my excitement the same way. Then I found Zilpha Keatley Snyder, who was at least writing somewhat fantastical stories–I read and reread all her stories about imaginative, creative children. If only I known of the existence of Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, and especially Diana Wynne Jones (who I’m making up for by reading her entire bibliography as an adult)–I wouldn’t have wasted so much time on stories I don’t even care to remember. I didn’t even read Narnia until I was a teenager (even though my dad had the whole set!), and The Hobbit was just a book with a funny looking man on the cover that I saw in my brother’s room one time. Once the Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings extravaganza hit while I was in college, the world cracked open for me.

    • I, too, ignored The Hobbit though it was on the shelves of my local library. I was convinced from the title that it would be silly animals-dressed-as-people and never touched it. But when I reached fourteen and a friend raved about LOTR, she insisted I needed to read Hobbit first. Surprise!

  2. So my story of being a passionate reader sounds really arrogant.

    I was also an early reader, coming to it (as far as my parents could tell) out of nowhere when I was about two, and that defined who I was because it was essentially my party trick. My uncle, who was studying law, had me read out of his law books to his friends. Did I understand them? Of course not. I was four. I kept the other kids in preschool entertained by reading aloud when the teachers needed a break. So for a long time–longer than I’d like to admit–reading was for me not just pleasure, but competition. I read books that other people gave me just to prove to them that I could and for the praise I got. It must have been like being a puppy given a treat. Embarrassing, now, but it’s how things were.

    So I wasn’t a passionate reader until I was twelve and discovered fantasy. It was not, at the time, a popular genre and certainly not one I got any praise for reading. My parents in particular didn’t get what I found so compelling about it. That was when I started reading for myself and not for anyone else, and it was what I loved. I still took pleasure in reading as fast as I did, but mainly because it meant I could fit more reading into an hour, which meant more time for more books. But the first book that made me a passionate reader was Heir of Sea and Fire by Patricia McKillip. I’d read other fantasies before that, but all of them had been recommended by a friend, and I found that one all by myself. (Yes, I read it before the first book in the trilogy. I used to do that and now I don’t know why.)

    So being a passionate reader…I think it’s a journey we make that we don’t realize we’re making until that first book grips us. I read a *lot* before becoming passionate about reading, which tells me it’s a qualitative rather than quantitative difference. I used to think being passionate meant reading a lot. Now I think it means being absorbed in a book, letting it be part of your world, and whether it takes you an hour to read it or a month, that really doesn’t matter.

  3. I was born a reader and have been drawn to books for as long as I can remember. I have no memory of the process of learning to read, but know I could already do it when I started kindergarten. In first grade, I remember the teacher enlisting my aid to help with reading groups. In second grade, my teacher asked me suspiciously if I was “really reading all those books?” and I quaked in terror because she had pulled a boy’s hair the week before and I was afraid I was next!

    The books I remember most vividly from my childhood are A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Prydain, and Little Women. Our town’s tiny library was my favorite haunt, and I chafed at the four book limit, but I made do by carefully selecting the biggest books I could find–a strategy that was hit or miss when it came to actual enjoyment of the story.

    I am more grateful than mere words can convey for this special talent I was born with–the ability to lose myself readily, to slip so easily into other worlds and places, to enter the skins of so many different people and feel and experience what they’re feeling and experiencing. It’s no small thing, this talent. I watch my own students struggle to read, see them avoid every encounter they can with written text, and I feel for them. My eyes roam over the shelves packed with books I have provided in my classroom, envisioning all the exciting locales and adventures they’ll never experience, and I pity them. Despite my best efforts, some will leave my class having never really read, and will continue through their lives, never willingly picking up a book. They will never even realize that they have diminished their own lives by an entire dimension.

  4. My first book that was more than chewing through colored fairy books and Bedknob and Broomstick or Cavanagh books my librarian at school didn’t want me to read (they were “too easy” but I was reading for story, not depression) was The Door into Summer. My mother was a huge SF reader and I pinched it. I was maybe nine? Did I get the sexual tensions and weirdnesses? No–but I got the basic idea, and burned through it. I loved A Wrinkle in Time, but the other L’Engle books didn’t appeal as much. Tolkien taught me the pleasure of a big book worth working through.

    I remember my mother had to come to the library and tell the librarians I could check out adult books. I had read all the Farley and such, and was running out of things that interested me. I didn’t even find Anne of Green Gables until I was a teen, and never read Little House! She never censored my reading–she just found out what I wanted to order from Scholastic and got to it ahead of me. I never knew until recently.

    Glad to know I wasn’t the only one who read Anderson’s beautiful sad tales only once. I didn’t need depressive stories, I was depressed enough in my teen years. But I read cereal boxes, and Time-Life books at lunch!

  5. I am glad I am not the only one to compulsively read cereal boxes. That may be why I started making my own granola!
    True torture for the addictive reader is only having posters around in a language and alphabet that is alien (Cyrillic and Russian in my case)!
    I was given Wind in the Willows when I was seven -and have returned to it again and again. One of my early memories is being in bed in the evening listening to my parents reading aloud to each other from the Saturday Evening Post serials. We were in the Far East and there wasn’t much available in English in those days. So at 8 or 9 I got hooked on the Hornblower stories. And H E Bates’ “Darling Buds of May”.

  6. I can’t remember when I wasn’t reading. I remember in grade 1 or 2 asking the librarian’s permission to take books out of the “older” section of the library, and my reason was that I’d read everything in the younger section.

    I remember my grade 3 music teacher lending me the Chronicles of Narnia, and my grade 4? teacher reading The Hobbit aloud to us.

    I remember proudly telling my mom I’d just finished my eighth re-read of Black Beauty. I was maybe 12.

    I remember the shelf in our local library where I came every week to take out a new Arthur Ransome book, running my fingers over all the books in the row to see if there was one I hadn’t read yet, and being so excited when there was (or, if there wasn’t a new one, debating which one I felt like re-reading that week).

    I remember reading The Once and Future King and knowing I was too young to really understand it but knowing it was something significant.

    I was also probably too young when I read The Riddlemaster of Hed—I remember the terrible cliffhanger at the end, and I didn’t have access to the second book (if it was because the second one wasn’t published yet, that would make me 10 when I read it. So, yeah, probably a little young!) That book still evokes in me a sense of something numinous I can’t quite grasp.

    Wrinkle in Time and Ring of Endless Light were incredibly significant to me. I loved Prydain, Anne of Green Gables (and all the sequels!)—but I didn’t read Little Women until later, for whatever reason. McKinley’s Beauty—I still have my first copy, falling apart and taped back together multiple times.

    I did everything one is supposed to do to get my three children to love reading—my oldest boy did as a child but as a teen turned to computer games instead; my middle daughter is almost as passionate as me, but not as compulsive; my youngest son is completely uninterested, but admits to enjoying the odd book now and again if he’s forced to read one. I think there is definitely a genetic component to love of reading!

    • Yep–I did that too, with my kids. My daughter finally became a reader as a teen, but never fiction (except for L.M. Montgomery) she reads non-fiction exclusively. My son never became a reader, though he will work his way slowly through a book if it grabs him enough. (I think there is a subtle dyslexic component there which prevented reading from becoming effortless.)

  7. I was taught to read before I was 4, and have no memory of it. I can’t remember when my mom started yelling at me because I was always reading: books, newspapers, magazines, water bottles. It has been an intense pleasure from the start, and it never stopped.

    I do remember similar feelings about learning foreign languages (including the five mysterious letters of the alphabet – JKXYW – which they had and we didn’t). I read novels and nonfiction, books for girls and for boys and for grownups. I read and reread until I knew some books almost by heart (I still do).

    I was told reading would spoil my sight: I was afraid it would make me blind all through my childhood, yet I couldn’t stop. My children know reading is forbidden during lunch and dinner. They all read through breakfast and sneak a book under the table if they see I’m distracted.

    • Oh yes, I remember the ‘reading will make you blind’ and as I was near-sighted, that much did seem to be true, but it didn’t stop me!

      I’m so glad your kids also read!

  8. Oh dear. I learned to read before anyone could realize I was even trying. I had to prove it to mom one road trip when I was around 4; she couldn’t believe I was ‘actually reading that comic’ and I got horribly mad she dared doubt me. 😛

    I always had unrestricted access to books in the library after that and don’t really remember much from the first couple of years. Apparently I never saw fit to let my parents know what I thought of the books, either, so now no one knows what I even read – aside from things like Nancy Drew, which weren’t good as much as numerous enough to notice.

    Most of the earliest, greatest finds were actually recommended by my parents. Some of the first books I remember clinging to after I was done with them? The Tiina series, by Anni Polva: a lively series of books about the adventures of a young tomboy. Then the Tarzan books by Burroughs – they had a made-up language (that I learnt)! it took place in a huge jungle! they didn’t patronize the reader!

    I loved Anne of Green Gables but was absolutely livid she married him of all people. That was when I had to listen to the first version of “oh, one day you’ll fall for a bad boy and understand :)” It was such a let-down I didn’t reread past the first book for years.

    I’m still mad, honestly.

    I never got into the Mars books (also Burroughs), which was a disappointed for dad. The Hobbit was a huge hit, though. Harry Potter I found on my own, as was the case with The Death Gate Cycle by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman, and all the fantasy books I could possibly carry home after that.

      • Gladly!

        The books were written between 1956 and 1986, and have always been popular with kids. They’re one of the first my mom (born in the 60s) recommended I (born in the 90s) read. The style is charming(ly dated), vivid and above all, fun to read.

        The series is named after the protagonist, Tiina, who at the beginning moves into a new apartment with her family. She’s honest (often overly so), competitive, fiery and always just. And not very cautious – she once rescued a kitten from bullies twice her size. She’s also unable to admit she was wrong and would rather just punish herself by crocheting (which she HATES) than apologize.

        She keeps getting into fistfights with boys she disagrees with. Especially anyone that dares say girls aren’t at least as good as boys. She does tend to win though! There’s all kinds of ridiculousness too, like her and a friend trying to learn to swim and deciding that since fat floats, coating themselves in butter must help them float.

        She doesn’t really age much in the books, staying in between 10 and 14. Years definitely pass, but the series isn’t exactly meant to be chronological. She does get a couple years older, old enough to become interested in romance (read: a boy), at which point I lost interest. That might have been for the best this time – he was jealous and controlling, and she mostly went with it, as is the norm in way too much of romantic fiction, despite them figuring out their ‘relationship problems’ with more fistfights rather than her daintily weeping over it. It was more humorous and less tragic than in a lot of books focusing on the romance, too, but I still couldn’t have cared less.

        I did enjoy the books immensely! Especially the adventure parts. I’m not sure they’ve ever been translated, but they are definitely a big thing in Finland. There was even a tv series!

        Here’s an example of the covers as I remember them:

  9. I remember reading an odd assortment of books before I turned 10 – books like Strubelpeter, The Odyessey and oddly enough, books on astronomy. But even though it wasn’t the first book I read, I think that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone can be counted as the first book that swept me away. I stayed up all night. I dragged my mother/father/whoever to the book shop for the next one and because I started reading the series at a time when they had only published till The Goblet of Fire, I found other books, like Whispering Witches to pass the time.

    • Whispering Witches! Must check that out.

      Sometimes I envy the Potter generation, getting to grow up with Harry!

  10. I wish I could remember the name of the first book I got excited about. I was so enamored that I was making my own copy in scrawling first grade writing — until my father informed me that I was BREAKING THE LAW. I was so traumatized that all I can remember is that it had colorful illustrations of a cat and a castle and a queen.

    I still remember quite a few others from the year I learned to read, though. Some that I kept rereading were Little Witch (Anna Elizabeth Bennett- heroine bravely defends friends about to be turned into flowerpots), Little Navajo Bluebird (Ann Nolan Clark- everyday life in what was, to me, another world), and The Magic Ball from Mars (Carl A. Biemiller- Military wants toy the Man from Out There had given boy catching fireflies. This one is still available at In retrospect, I’m a little surprised that it survived McCarthyism, but I’m glad it did.)

    Many of the others already mentioned were ultimately quite influential, but later, since the bookmobile had age-limited shelves, and some of the best (e.g. A Wrinkle in Time) hadn’t been published yet. Ultimately the bookmobile librarian, who realized I’d read everything on the proper shelves, let me break the age-limit and check-out-limit rules, but not until about third or fourth grade.

    • Oh wow, that is kind of adorable, about copying the book!

      What a lovely librarian. I bet it was exciting to see a kid so jazzed about reading.