In his essay “On Studies,” Francis Bacon wrote, "Reading makes a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man." I first encountered the writing of Bacon in my high school English classes. This introduction to Bacon lead me to the writing of Michel de Montaigne, Lewis Thomas and other practitioners of the essay. In fact, I can trace my position as a columnist to the reading of “On Studies” and other classic essays by Francis Bacon.
However, I already had caught the reading bug years earlier. As a child I watched my mother religiously read her evening newspaper as she returned home from a day at work. By the time I began school, I had modeled this behavior. The first thing I read on a daily basis was the sports page of The Topeka Capital-Journal.
In the years before ESPN, The Athletic, and 24-hour cable sports programming, the daily sports page was my lifeline to a world far beyond the confines of my tenement in Topeka. In fourth grade, my family moved and I began attending McCarter Elementary School. The librarian Ms. Burnett realized my love of sports and introduced me to Sports Illustrated. Along with the sports page, this became the world I inhabited in regard to reading.
These memories returned this past week during my classes at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. In my Discourse 100 class, my students are preparing to deliver a speech recounting their own literacy narratives. In her article “Sponsors of Literacy,” Deborah Brandt introduces the concept of “literacy sponsors.” According to Brandt, these sponsors can be both positive or negative, encouraging or restricting your access to literacy.
Growing up in poverty, reading proved to be a refuge. Though I did not have access to the type of personal libraries that all of my children were fortunate enough to have, I unceasingly devoured these books. An old encyclopedia set and The Guinness Book of World Records were my standbys. Though I would have read works of fictions too, sports biographies and those reference works were my preference.
I know that Mrs. Burnett and my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Everittsen, were early sponsors of literacy, as were my school libraries and the Topeka-Shawnee County Public Library. I am pleased that along with the encouragement of my mother, I had easy access to these additional resources that did not discriminate on the basis of class or ethnicity.
Earlier this week, I attended a book talk by Pamela Paul and Maria Russo on their new book, "How to Raise a Reader." As editors of the New York Times Book Review, Paul and Russo are quite familiar with the world of reading and books. The book covers reading at all ages and includes particular books for each age group, too.
During their talk, Paul and Russo provided numerous dos and dont’s for parents to encourage their children to become readers. Though we may all want to have children read the classics like C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien, the fact is that any reading can be useful and helpful to our children. I am thankful no one told me reading about sports was not appropriate. The fact remains that my earlier reading for love led me to my position today as a teacher and writer. And I am immeasurably better for it.
Nicolas Shump is a columnist for The Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.