I was, at best, skeptical. In fact, my distrust of what I was feeling
was more akin to absolute disbelief than skepticism, like the difference
between atheism and agnosticism. A lifelong advocate of reading and the
written word, I found it uncomfortable to consider that reading and the
love of reading weren’t absolutely essential to a happy, successful, and
fulfilling life. This was alien territory for me, a total departure from
my previously cozy and strongly-held position. I was being ousted from
my proverbial comfort zone, and it felt like both body and soul were
Whatever the question, books were always the answer, the key. I had yet
to meet a life situation that didn’t shout out “There’s a book about
that,” whether for education, pleasure, or pure escapism. This held true
for as long as I could remember – my whole childhood allowance was spent
on book and comics. From a very young age, I was hooked on popular
British comics like Twinkle, Little Star, Mandy and Bunty, and stories
by Enid Blyton (much criticized for being racist and sexist, among other
things – at the time, of course, I was blissfully unaware of such
controversies). Then I fell in love with authors like Louisa May Alcott,
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, and Oscar Wilde, and more recently Bill
Bryson, Janet Evanovich, and Tracy Culleton. My list of non-fiction
books was even longer.
Of course, intellectually, I knew that there were a myriad ways to
elicit information and learn, to find relaxation and enjoyment – other
valuable and worthwhile experiences – but for me, books overshadowed all
else. In raising my children, particularly once we went down the home
education path, I was sure that once I engendered in them a love of
reading and a confidence in the written word, all else would naturally
follow; their education would fall into place.
Notorious among friends and family for recommending book titles and
authors without solicitation, I suspected that many found me predictable, maybe even predictably boring, in this regard. But I tried
not to analyze this too much – until now, that is.
Recently, cracks had begun to appear in the foundation of my
strongly-held belief that books and reading were as fundamental to life
as were oxygen and water. Less open-minded and more stubborn than I
liked to admit, even to myself, I struggled internally with this
challenge. Books and the written word occupied a hallowed and sacred
place in my life and in my approach to everything.
I was forced to re-think this, however, when listening to a speaker at a
home education conference in Ireland last year. The speaker, a home
education veteran (whose homeschooled daughter, following in her
mother’s footsteps, was home- educating her own young children,)
described her initial frustration with her husband’s lack of interest in
books and reading. As a self-confessed bibliophile, she admitted that
this used to bother her in the early days – she just could not
understand why an otherwise intelligent and enlightened person could
have such little concern for books, why he seemed to place such little
value on the written word.
She went on to explain how she felt an irrepressible need somehow to
introduce him to the love of books, to make him love reading, feeling
sure that he would come to share her passion for books if only he would
read more. Of course, he could read and obviously he did read, she said,
but it was for a purpose and only when absolutely necessary. True, she
admitted, he didn’t seem disadvantaged by his lack of reading. In all
regards, he was a successful and happy person. Still, she was bothered
and confused by his not being “a reader.”
Over the years and in spite of herself, however, she began to see that
far from depriving him, her husband’s lack of interest in the written
word actually gave him a freedom that she would never have, and that she
almost envied. Less caught up in reading, he was free to experience
other ways of understanding the world around him. Slowly and gradually,
it dawned on her that it wasn’t a competition between reading and not
reading – it was simply another way.
The speaker then shared with us an example that would drastically and
fundamentally shift my outlook.
“Look out that window,” she said, pointing across the room.
We all turned our heads and looked out the window as instructed.
She continued, “My eyes are drawn immediately to that sign on the wall
across the yard, and I read the words, ‘Staff Only Beyond This Point.’
That’s what I see, words on a sign. For the most part, that’s all I see
– words on a sign,” she confessed.
“My husband’s gaze, however, would bypass the sign altogether; maybe it
wouldn’t even register with him. He would see bright blue sky, fluffy
white clouds, rays of golden sunshine breaking through, rolling green
hills, and cows grazing.”
Obviously, she was vaguely aware of the surroundings, she said – she
knew the sky, clouds, and hills were there, but she didn’t really see
them in the way her husband would have. Her focus on the writing blurred
her vision of the bigger picture, which she acknowledged is very often
so much more interesting than the actual words.
“So, who am I to adopt the moral high ground with my passion, or some
would say, obsession, with the written word?” she told her smiling
Instead of opening up the world, she had to admit that, there are times
when reading actually closes it off to us. And so it was, with a small,
simple exercise, that my eyes were literally and metaphorically opened.
Pauline Mary Curley is an Irish unschooling mom, lucky
enough to divide her time between the West of Ireland and New Jersey. In
a previous life in Europe (pre-children), she worked as a structural
engineer, a trade union representative and an adult literacy and
numeracy teacher, and co-founded a Women’s Center in Luton, England. She
offers “All About Ireland” library programs and homeschool workshops,
and one of her dreams is to encourage North American life learning
families to visit and explore Ireland.