I love the Nerdy Book Club. I can distinctly remember when Cindy, Colby, and Donalyn were talking about it back in December. I remember there was a Thursday reveal, and I remember how excited I was about this blog, this group, and the discussions we would have! I have not been disappointed. But I have a confession to make:
I have not always been a member of the Nerdy Book Club.
At least, not in my opinion. I was baptized into the NBC, brought up with its traditions of reading, but then, in my teenage years, I entered into a prolonged Reading Dark Night of the Soul. I left the Nerdy Book Club. I was fed up with its ways and with books (or so I thought). I was entering a life of a dedicated book atheist. I didn’t believe good books, books actually worth reading, existed.
Many of our older, wiser members would probably have looked at me and thought “oh, don’t worry about Brian; he’ll be back. He‘s still a member. He‘s just lost his way.” Well, you were right. Here I am. How did this all happen?
I grew up in a house where reading just happened. It was part of life. I actually can’t remember not being able to read. My mom tells me a story where I came back from day care (or maybe it was Kindergarten), surprised, saying “Mom — did you know there are people who don’t know how to read?!” Well, of course there were. But reading was just always there for me.
And I loved it.
There were regular trips to the library from an early age. I was always enrolled in the summer reading challenges. I remember checking out Arrow to the Sun practically every week. Why my parents never purchased it for me, I don’t know. Probably because we had — hello — regular trips to the library!
In elementary school, reading was a huge part of what we did. There was one moment in 2nd grade where we had to write a thank you letter to our student teacher, who was finishing up her time with us. I didn’t have my letter done, but then it was magically finished later in the day. My teachers, not being stupid, asked me when I did it. I told them during DEAR time (though I actually did it during recess). As “punishment,” I had to sit out 2nd recess to read. Punishment? I was given a chance to read Freckle Juice again! Also, I learned a valuable lesson about lying: it might cost you two recesses!
I was an active participant in my school’s Battle of the Books. I read Maniac Magee with a passion, and was ready to answer any questions anyone could come up with.
I loved going to our school library or our classroom library and finding books to read. It was never just one. I devoured books. I went through a speed-reading phase where I would “read” about 10 pages a minute, just glossing over the words, though I did get some of the meaning (I still need to “re-read” [actually, read for the first time] The Chronicles of Narnia). Books became something to get through as much as they were something to enjoy.
Looking back, that was the beginning of the end.
By middle school, I was checking out more CDs than books at the library, and most of the books I was getting were how-to-draw books (didn’t work) or comic books (down the same aisle as the how-to-draw books). Nothing was wrong with that, but I was definitely distancing myself from novels and from stories.
In school, things were worse. In 8th grade, we read The Crucible in class. That’s one of the last books (or plays) I remember reading, and that one was done entirely in class. I’m not sure what the last book I finished outside of the school walls was. I do know I didn’t read The Call of the Wild that same year, though it was assigned. I was taking the title of “Nerdy Book Club member” and casting it aside. I wanted nothing to do with that.
High school was where my love of reading really went to die. My teachers would say things like “this is such a good book!” but without passion behind their words. Or maybe there was, but I wasn’t noticing; I was too busy talking with or listening to the people sitting around me. I sure wasn’t going to waste my teenage years paying attention in class, or worse, reading. Especially not the boring stuff we were asked to read.
For the good of my teachers (and my grades), though, I pretended to care. I jumped through the hoops they set up. One would think the D I earned on my test on Frankenstein would have opened my eyes. To some extent, it did: I started reading Cliffs Notes and discovered the brand-new resource of SparkNotes in addition to just reading the book until I fell asleep. That’s how I made it through high school.
Well, I didn’t just make it through. I graduated with a 4.0 GPA. I earned a 36 on the reading section of the ACT (I had perfected the art of answering questions about something I didn‘t care about and didn‘t read completely). I don’t say these things to brag. I say them because I did these things all while never. finishing. a. single. book. in high school. I would have fit right in with these guys for the first half of the video.
In case you’re wondering, that is NOT OKAY.
So how did I see the light in that Dark Night? Well, a lot of it is thanks to my 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Dennis, and my senior year Creative Writing teacher, Mr. Hebestreit. They inspired me to go to school to become an English teacher. I wanted nothing to do with reading, but I loved writing. I wanted to share this inspiration with others.
So I went to college, and as it turns out, English degrees require a lot of literature classes! I continued to apply the formula I learned in high school: read about 50 pages, check out SparkNotes, listen to the class conversations on the rest, take good notes, and churn out a 2-3 page paper. I did that for. . .oh, I think it was Mrs. Dalloway for a British Lit class. My professor, Dr. Harding, gave me back my paper, a solid B- I think, with these words: “You wrote a lot without saying much.” Well, yeah. That’s what’s always worked. It took until college for anyone to call me out on that, though.
So what ended up bringing me back? Not surprisingly, it was when I found something I liked. It was great talking about Huck Finn and Heart of Darkness and all the other books I was supposed to read. I enjoyed talking about these books. I enjoyed their literary qualities. I didn’t enjoy reading them, though. Unsurprisingly, the first book I read in years was one I actually enjoyed: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. “Whoa. Is this what reading is supposed to be like?” I thought. Enjoyable? I tried another: England, England by Julian Barnes. That was good, too! And then, I did the unthinkable: I stepped foot in a library looking for a book to read. Not one I had to read for class. Just a book to read. I didn’t even know what I wanted. I found another Auster book. And it wasn’t as good as The New York Trilogy, but it was still good. I was enjoying reading!
That made me want to re-join the NBC, but I wasn’t there yet. I was just curious. I still needed to learn more about it. Then I was slapped in the face with an invitation I couldn’t refuse: Young Adult Literature.
In the worst summer of my life (a high school friend died, I was helping with research for my math advisor [not bad, just time-consuming], and I had about 300 miles of driving each week, living in two places), I took a YA Lit course with Dr. Susan Steffel (and fellow NBC member Sarah Andersen!). I couldn’t believe what we were doing. We were enjoying books. And these books were powerful. I had never even heard of books such as Speak and Monster, or authors such as Chris Crutcher and Lauren Myracle before this class. I needed these books. I needed something to pull me along through that summer. These books did it. They brought me back. I don’t want to get too dramatic, but who knows — they may have saved my life.
What made them matter? They were (and are) good. They’re real. And we read them not to over-analyze every last detail about them. We read them because they were stories that we needed to hear, written in wonderful ways. That’s what reading is? I HAD FORGOTTEN! It had been so long! “Oh, reading!” I wanted to cry out, “You don’t suck! You never changed! I’m sorry I left you. Please take me back!”
And it welcomed me back, with open arms. Now, a full-fledged, card-carrying member of the Nerdy Book Club (do we have cards yet?), I consider it my honor to not allow another Brian Wyzlic to make it through school like I did. Reading is awesome. We need to shout that from the rooftops.