My kids won’t even pick up a book – and it is definitely all my fault | Zoe Williams

Reading has brought me endless joy, but I have accidentally crushed my children’s enthusiasm. It is a terrible indictment, writes Zoe Williams

Two weeks ago, I got so cheered up by something that I still think about it most days. I was talking to two extremely literary people – genuine article, book-writing people – and it turns out that their kids don’t read any more than mine do. Until then I thought it was my fault, and it is a genuine source of self-recrimination and sadness. As much as it pleases me to yaw on about the mood-boosting effects of fresh air and exercise, I don’t really believe any of that. Reading for pleasure, I do believe in. There have been times in my life when other people’s stories were the only good things in it, and I didn’t hate those times. I actively enjoyed the disappearing. Yet I have totally failed to inculcate my kids with any of this. The furthest they’ll meet me is to occasionally read some manga and suffer my homily on whether that counts, if it’s mainly pictures.

Other people’s kids read, otherwise who’s buying all those books? Something just went wrong, between 2007 and today, and I don’t know what, but I must have done it.

From birth to about eight years old, it all went fine: I tried some of the stuff I had loved as a kid, and they found that too boring, but it didn’t matter, because hark, new books are written constantly, and the fountain of Wimpy Kid is, like the one in scriptures, ever flowing, its waters in perpetual motion (plus, did you see the latest film? It’s genuinely, stone-cold-classic good). Both kids got into the Maze Runner books at about the same time as they decided it was beneath their dignity to be read to together, and if there is an act of greater parental devotion than to read the entire, turgid trilogy, then go back to the beginning and read it again; I don’t know what that would look like.

By now exhausted – I guess it’s 2018, and the eldest is 11 – I cracked open my favourite genre, apocalyptic dystopias of the 50s, and forced TJ to listen to John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, which gave him a possibly lifelong terror of nuclear war. I was OK with that as I had suffered the exact same fear, and I felt as if I had handed down something peculiar and recherché, like teaching him how to use a loom. Unfortunately, he now considered himself too old for children’s books – all of them, at a stroke.

“Have you tried them on Philip Pullman?” friends asked, helpfully, as though we were just in a normal blip, and everything would come right once we discovered spirit animals. No dice, I’m afraid. Only adult books would do, but almost all adult books were still too wordy. I stuck with Wyndham for a bit, but realised how very long ago the 50s were when TJ was astonished by the main characters in The Day of the Triffids falling in love. “I thought she was a lesbian.” Huh? Weird. What could have given him that idea, when literally all they’ve done for 150 pages is run away from giant, malicious plants? Right. The coming out party.

I went roaming for books that were modern-ish and incredibly eventful, and landed on Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which is how I found myself having to explain stoicism, psychoactive drugs and incest in a single evening. It took a long time and none of us fell asleep until a long time after that. But that wasn’t the problem – what actually blew the whole thing apart was that, around halfway through, he started to dispute the moral choices of the five main characters. “They mustn’t kill Bunny. They’ve just got to find another way.”

“Bunny’s already dead,” I pointed out. “Bunny died in the first line. There is no un-killing Bunny.”

“There must be.”

I had a flashback to my mother reading me and my sister Franz Kafka’s The Trial, when we were nine and 11. I remember her voice sounding terribly sad, and not knowing whether she was putting it on for atmosphere, or had only chosen the book because she was sad already. Otherwise, I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. But I must have picked up something, because when she abruptly stopped reading it, saying she’d skipped ahead and it was too depressing, I distinctly remember thinking: “You had to skip ahead to realise this wasn’t going to end well?”

I really didn’t want to force a murder that was definitely inevitable on my precious firstborn, so I stopped The Secret History midway through. He, being a completist, wouldn’t start anything else with it unfinished. My daughter H, after a while, cottoned on to the fact that TJ was watching an episode of Young Sheldon while I was reading her a chapter of Murder Most Unladylike, and noped the whole reading business as well. Neither took up the baton of reading silently, using their own eyes. I crushed it, which I think is a modern-day phrase to indicate triumph, but I mean, crushed the spirit of fictive inquiry that has been the wellspring of maybe 18% of my life’s joy. It’s the most terrible indictment.

And yet, on the other hand, I have these friends, right, really bookish, and their kids don’t read either.

  • Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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Zoe Williams

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