A Long Road to Nerdy Book Club by Tony Keefer
My potholed and traffic jammed road to becoming an avid reader is filled with the detours of not fully understanding the power of choice and community. The lack of choice and community I encountered for long stretches of my drive to the Nerdy Book Club was like driving though a metropolitan rush hour.
The SRA Kits of my elementary years were like being forced to the right lane watching others scream past me in the left. Occasionally, I’d sneak into that fast lane and jump quickly from blue to aqua to green, but most of the time it felt like I trudged through the start and stop action of yellow, orange and red for maddening durations. I would get nervous that I wasn’t moving fast enough. I’d get twitchy when my friends were miles ahead of me. I wondered if I could ever catch up. One thing I don’t remember about my elementary reading life was reading an actual book. I am pretty sure I did, but the only evidence of non SRA reading is a well-loved, threadbare copy of Where the Wild Things nestled in a keepsake box in my basement.
In middle school, I discovered the joy of comic books. Once or twice a week during summer I’d bike with friends to The News Shop and spend allowance money on the latest installment of the X-Men or Spider Man. My friends and I would feverishly debate whether or not Wolverine could kick The Hulk’s ass or if Dr. Octopus was more sinister than the Joker. This time of my life was like being allowed to drive in the carpool lane zooming through rush hour in the Batmobile. Unknowingly I had discovered a community that thrived because of our collective passion for all things DC or Marvel.
Unfortunately, the flashing signs and orange barrels would force me to merge right again once I was in school. I do remember all of my middle school language arts teachers telling me how important reading was. “Reading will make you smarter, reading is the foundational skill for life’s success, reading opens the doors to new adventures” then, like in 8th grade, they would hand out a copy of The Tales of Two Cities assign chapters 1-3 for homework. Definitely not “The best of times.”
About that time my friends and I discovered the college bookstore in our hometown had the wonderful little yellow books called Cliff Notes. We gleefully discovered the reading equivalent of AAA for our emergencies. We would quickly scan our Cliff Notes so we’d look smart on the next day’s quizzes.
Most of my high school reading life was like the slow crawl around the outerbelt. I kept moving forward, but at a rather slow pace. We’d take an entire quarter to dissect a book like A Separate Peace or To Kill a Mockingbird. I actually loved reading these books (no Cliff Notes needed), but it just took too damn long. Finishing the novels was like pulling into your driveway after a 50 minute commute for a five mile trip, relief not joy.
Then the last semester of my senior year I had a teacher for a class called Modern American Lit that changed my life. Strolling into Mrs. Johnson’s class I notice stacks of books spread across the table in the front of the room. There were at least 10 copies of over 50 novels. The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Wise Blood, Cat’s Cradle, The Old Man and the Sea are some that I can still recall in the piles.
Once everyone got settled Mrs. Johnson said something like, “The best way to appreciate Modern American Lit is to read and talk about these books. You’ll need to read a lot. But we will read and talk about the books we read every day in here. Hopefully you end up loving these books as much as I do.”
Our freedom to choose wasn’t wide open, but we did have a great deal of choice in what we read from her massive collection and how much we read. In the end most of us in that room read and loved far more books than we would have ever dreamed we’d commit to in the last 18 weeks of our senior year.
Within the four walls of that classroom I got my second lesson in the value of a reading community. I read titles because my classmates passionately recommended them. Some of my classmates read Flannery O’Connor because of my high praise. We encouraged each other joyfully to read more and more.
Since high school, I thankfully had much fewer roadblocks on the way to this Nerdy Book Club because of Mrs. Johnson. The only detours, potholes or traffic jams I faced were when I didn’t have a solid community of readers to support me. There were times when I had good friends that were avid readers like me so I read even more. Unfortunately, I’d take a wrong turn every once in a while and found myself without a support network. When this happened I read, but not very much or not very widely.
At this point in my now 44-year-old life I have an abundance of reading communities and choice. When I think about my winding road to the Nerdy Book Club, I often wonder what kept me trying. It would have been easy to not get here with all the distractions life has to offer. I feel fortunate that at critical stages in my journey I had support to keep me going. The support I received is why I feel so strongly about my work with young readers. I know not all of them will follow the maps to Nerdy Book Club that I leave around our classroom, but one thing is certain. I will not place any orange barrels to slow them down.