On Being an Imperfect Reader by Rivka Genesen
“What can I help you with?” I asked in my usual way one of those Sundays I worked the desk in the children’s room. The girl in front of me said simply: “Fantasy books.” The look in her eyes was familiar- the subtle fire of wonder. I’d watched it catch as I’d helped a mother and her son find a good fantasy series as this girl sans parent waited patiently for her turn. “Oh yeah,” I said, “What fantasy books have you read and liked?” The answer was as quick as the question: “I haven’t read any.” I handed her A Wrinkle In Time. “Get excited! This is just the beginning!” As she walked away I smugly thought of how lucky it is to introduce kids to a great book, to help someone navigate their curiosity. And then, an awakening: I hadn’t actually read A Wrinkle in Time. I had stopped reading after page three. Meg Murry’s attic room began to creak with this wind and I was done.
I spent the bulk of the year that followed making good on a resolution of honesty, reading books that I’d claimed to have loved but whose pages I’d never turned- my backlog was at least 12 months long. I got to know the Murrys, I joined a book club to get through Ulysses, I waded in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, discovered Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, marvelled at Frankenstein and Chekhov’s short stories, and was delighted by The Phantom Tollbooth. All those books I started a Goodreads account to keep myself accountable. I began the process of building my own canon.
Who I am turned out to be different than who I’d expected to become. I got to know myself as the reader I am, not that reader I thought ought to be. I discovered that I don’t read for pleasure- I read to struggle rather than to escape. I read to make sense of the world. I read for the “me too” so that I can move on to the “now what?” Losing the anticipation allows me to enjoy the story and so I remain a-read-the-last-chapter-first sort. I allow myself to get distracted. I pick books up and put them down.
There have been years where I was finding the question, not looking for an answer. Those spaces allowed me to read the genres that made me uncomfortable (how I often I hear “anything but fantasy and science fiction.”) And those years that I didn’t read allowed me to come back to books with new experience and perspective rather than shame. Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, I was identified as a reader. But it was not how I self-identified. I wanted to know everything and books were simply the means. In the course of the years, what I wondered about and what I said I read grew further and further apart until they became, finally, separate.
My students think I’ve read every book in the library, that I bought them with my own money to share with them. It is my duty to disrupt this beautiful ideal, this is where I practice the truth that I know. No, I don’t read books all the time with an intense fervor, I say. It’s an ebb and flow. Sometimes the best reading I do is of a tv show or a movie. But I always stay curious.
At the end of 9th grade, one of my teachers snuck me a copy of Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder and in it an inscription that imprinted itself on the way I approach the world and my students. “I saw a very withdrawn and shy young lady sitting in that second row, second seat of Rm. 216 at the end of the day; that youngster has blossomed so beautifully…you have come into your own and, and it has been so satisfying to watch it happen. You also have that very, very special “sixth” sense- the sense of wonder. I see it so rarely these days among young people- but yours is alive and beautiful. May it be with you always.” Every day I make a decision be a model of a reader for my students, which is to say I work every day to be myself visibly. I want to let myself be surprised by who I turn out to be and to stay on the quest for the question; as a teacher-librarian, I always want to be curious about my students and help them care for their wonder.
Rivka Genesen left New York City and book publishing (and working on Sundays at a New Jersey library) in 2014 to become the Director of the Katie Arnall Freeman Media Center at The Heritage School in Newnan, Georgia. She is currently enrolled in the year-long certificate program with Mindful Schools and is a member of the 2017-2018 reading committee for The Georgia Peach Book Award.