A Place to Be Quiet by Donalyn Miller
I’ve traveled continuously this summer—going from one literacy conference to the next. I’ve met thousands of teachers, librarians, and administrators gathered in auditoriums and classrooms to learn more about engaging children with reading. It’s been an inspiring summer spent talking with passionate folks about literacy. I have learned a lot and hopefully shared some ideas along the way.
I’m grateful for the work I do. I get to talk, read, and write for a living. It’s as delicious as it sounds.
I enjoy visiting new places and meeting people, but the inhumanities of travel accumulate like plaque. After weeks on the road, I miss things I take for granted at home like walking barefoot and access to decent toilet paper (I made a list of a hundred things I miss while sitting in an airport once, but that’s just for me).
Last week was a particularly awful travel week. Three delayed flights and one cancelled flight caused a cascade of other travel woes. I slept in four hotels in four separate cities—no more than 5 hours of sleep most nights. I spent an unreasonable amount of time in taxis, rental cars, and TSA checkpoints. I subsisted on coffee, Advil, protein bars, and conference banquet chicken (and red wine, if I’m being honest).
By Friday night, I splintered. After a week of being on, I needed to power off. Speaking at so many conferences, I was sick of my own voice. I was crabby and judgmental—snapping at a woman who rolled her suitcase over my foot in the security line. I prayed I could hold it together until boarding the plane where I could sleep and time-travel home. Discovering that my flight was delayed an hour, I almost lost it. Rage tweeting American Airlines felt justified in that moment, but ultimately made me feel worse. I tried scrolling through Facebook and Twitter, but scanning political news fed my fatigue and anger instead of distracting me from it.
I didn’t want to read. I wanted to go home. As magical as books are, I have never physically teleported from one airport to the next while reading one. Unable to sleep for at least another hour and worried that I would collapse into an embarrassing mess in public, I didn’t have any other options. I needed a book to make the time pass and keep myself sane. Digging a book out of my backpack, I couldn’t remember reading anything for the entire week. Ironic that I spent so much time attending literacy conferences I didn’t have time to read (or write) much. It was clear. I needed to read for my own mental health.
I spend a lot of my time convincing people that reading matters because of the outward benefits it provides—academic and professional success or social awareness and empowerment—but we cannot disregard the power reading has for the individual. I don’t mean the knowledge or skills we gain when we read. I mean the emotional and physical value of walking away from ourselves when we fall into a book. At an ALAN Conference a few years ago, John Green said, “Reading gives us a place to be quiet in a world that doesn’t give us a place for that.” In a society that demands our attention and active participation, the process of reading a book gives us all a chance to hit pause on our lives.
We are social creatures who crave relationships. We seek validation from the members of our tribe and reinforcement for our affiliations. While naysayers proclaim that social media and the Internet isolate people, I believe these tools have pushed us to be more connected than ever. There’s always another email to answer or photo to tweet. This pressure to live outwardly denies us regular opportunities to disappear into the quiet.
Reading to escape gets a bad rap—minimalized as frivolous and unimportant when compared to more measurable outcomes for reading—but running away from our lives and into a book rises to the top of the list when considering why many people enjoy reading.
For years, my students expressed how much they enjoyed daily reading time. They liked the books they read, but they appreciated the time to go somewhere else in their heads, too. I could justify to an administrator why reading supported my students’ academically and socially, but I never explained that reading helped my students escape from school for 30 minutes a day, or described why that mattered.
For people who don’t read much, I don’t know how they shut out the world when it’s always screaming, “Look at me! Interact with me! Tell me what you think about everything!” Some days, reading teaches me something I didn’t know. Some days, reading fosters my empathy for others. Some days, reading provokes action or conversation. Some days, reading breaks me down and rebuilds me into someone new.
Some days, reading helps me just stop.
**I would like to thank all of the educators who I have met this summer. You inspire me and encourage me to keep going. I am blessed to share a common mission with all of you.
**I would also like to thank John David Anderson for writing Ms. Bixby’s Last Day, which kept me from dissolving in the Charlotte Airport. I strive every day to be “one of the Good Ones” like Ms. B.
Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp) and the Best Practices Roots (#bproots) chat with Teri Lesesne. Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.