Are Readers Born or Made?

Source: Flickr user Emily Carlin

I have made no secret of the fact that I am a bookworm. A dedicated reader. A full-on bibliophile. A nerd, if you must. So I was quite interested when a Twitter pal pointed my attention today to an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education that addresses the question of whether readers are born or made: the old nature versus nurture debate. The author of the article, a frustrated English literature professor, posits that readers are mostly born to be readers and that we cannot teach people to love reading. I would agree that by the time a person is in college – really, by the time they’re 10 – it’s too late to instill an absolute love of and passion for reading…but I don’t necessarily agree that we’re born with some book-lover’s gene that makes us devoted readers. (To be fair, in reading the rest of the article, he does seem to talk more about people who want to tear books apart and break them down, to really study and analyze them, rather than people who simply enjoy reading a good story – two different things in my mind.)

I don’t remember a time when I was not in love with books, but I don’t think that has anything to do with my genetic code. I was raised in a house where the written word was valued. My mom and my grandma read in what little spare time they had – books, magazines, newspapers. They made sure I was always surrounded by books. They read to me often before I could read to myself. They made sure I was able to go to the library whenever I wanted, check out whatever books I wanted, read read read read read whenever I wanted. I received gifts of books for birthdays and Christmas, and they made sure to tell others who wanted to buy me gifts that I wanted books more than anything else. In short, these two women who raised me encouraged my reading at every turn. I was hooked on books before I was 5 years old, and I never looked back, and my loved ones enabled my addiction in every possible way.

Maybe I was predisposed to love reading. Maybe if my family had modeled running and hiking and bike riding as the preferred activities for leisure, I would have turned to books anyway. But really, I don’t think that’s true. I’ve seen so many kids who grow up loving to do the same hobbies their parents and grandparents love and actively encourage (because it is all about encouragement in addition to modeling behaviors – a kid whose father golfs may not become interested in golf if her father doesn’t actively encourage her involvement and participation in the game). I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule; one of my biggest fears about ever having a kid is actually that, in a home filled with books in every room and two parents who can’t stop reading, we’d somehow have a kid who hates books. I’m sure that’s happened before. But I think it would be unusual.

What do you guys think?


8 thoughts on “Are Readers Born or Made?

  1. You just made my heart happy – I’m not the only small town bookish girl! 🙂

    I’m going to say nurture, mostly, but there has to be a wiring for the visual in there for the insurance that it will stick. I was also surrounded by books and started to read early, and it stuck. But I have the feeling that if I was an auditory learner it might not have worked so well. My brother, for instance, same background, but doesn’t enjoy reading.

    My friends have started their 5 kids out early, and in fact, the 2nd oldest taught his younger sister to read before she hit kindergarten.

    It’s also got to be stuff that’s interesting to them. Nephew in Law is a major video game kid, but yesterday, he had a pokemon anime novel with him. He finished it and went “Dad, I finished my book, can we go back to the library tomorrow and get another?!?!” And BIL was amazed and went “well, YEAH, of course!” Was it a hard book, no, but it was interesting to him. I’m sure if it had been a dry history novel, he probably wouldn’t have been so interested and it wouldn’t have been a good experience for him.

    So I think I’m leaning heavily towards nurture.

  2. I agree with you completely. I think the only way to be “born” a reader is to be born into circumstances that foster reading as a leisure activity. I find the idea that there is some reading gene preposterous. It’s like saying you are either born to love grilled cheese or aren’t.

  3. My mom will claim proudly that she read to me in the womb and that was the deciding factor that turned me into a smart kid. But she also did a lot of the other things you mention: library visits, books given, read aloud time every night. And it’s true, I’ve loved books all my life. However, my 9-years younger little brother got all the same treatment (womb reading and all) and didn’t turn out quite the same way. He went through a period when he was 7 or 8 where he outright refused to read. My mom was frantic. She threw every kind of age-appropriate book she could think of at him, hoping to trigger some interest. You know what got him hooked? Goosebumps. Everyone has a gateway drug apparently. But that moment of rebellion ended up defining his continued reading habit. He does continue to read in his adult life, but not nearly at my high consumption rate. So maybe there are some innate differences after all.

    1. You know, I’ve also been thinking that maybe it’s not so much a book-loving gene as introversion. Obviously, there are extroverts who like to read as well, but reading is such a solitary activity that you have to be okay with – even happy to – spend lots of time by yourself with nothing but your books for company. And I do think that introversion/extroversion is, at least to an extent, innate. And that might explain differences between siblings who are raised in the same environment?

      1. I think that’s a very plausible theory. Mom and I are definitely both introverts and like reading. My brother on the other hand, is super social and does not. Musketeers I would say leans more towards introvert like me, but she spends her spare time with her airplane instead.

  4. My experience as a Mom and as a teacher leads me to believe that first a child must have a decent attention span then you can create a positive environment while reading to child that makes them relate reading to positive good feelings. After that it helps if the book is good and appealing to the child. Most children with short attention spans never love to read.

    1. That seems fair. OK, so introverts without ADHD who grow up in supportive reading environments and are introduced to the right book at the right time are likely to grow into lifelong readers. Hmmm. It sounds harder to make a reader all the time…

  5. Books have been my life. I’ve been like that since I was a little kid. My Mom took me to the library every Tuesday and I’d take out the maximum – ten books.

    I cannot fathom being without them. It has widened my world, broadened knowledge and kept me company through lonely times. It is a joy, kept constant through the ability and creativity of authors.

    My parents were always reading something. We also had books in our home, and they encouraged us to think, as well as to get an education. I think that all helps too.

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