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Changing my Perspective on the Importance of Reading
By Pauline Mary Curley

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 rebelling.

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 audience.

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.

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