Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, has a book that just might help parents and their children during quarantine. “How to Raise a Reader,” co-written with Maria Russo, is an indispensable guide to welcoming babies, teens, and everything in between to a lifelong love of reading.
In an phone interview with The Martha’s Vineyard Times, Paul, author of “Pornified,” “My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues,” and others, spoke about her book, what she read growing up, and some of her favorite writers today.
Make sure to catch Paul Thursday, July 9, at 5 pm for a Zoom talk through the Vineyard Haven library about “How to Raise a Reader.”
What’s your connection to the Vineyard? Why did you choose to do an event here?
I have not been to Martha’s Vineyard since I was 13 or 14, when I was an au pair for a few weeks. I was looking forward to coming to Martha’s Vineyard. It would have been my first time there in, I don’t even want to say how long, but alas, I will just be there virtually.
What inspired you to write “How to Raise a Reader”?
That’s a book I felt like was both a kind of mission and a passion. I co-wrote it with Maria Russo, who at the time was our children’s book editor at the book review.
It started off as an online guide that she and I created. I had been approached by a team at the Times who was creating these guides around all these questions, and I said what should we do for books, and this idea for how to raise a reader was the most fundamental and obvious one because it’s as a child when we learn to read, but it’s also when we learn to love to read.
When you think about when people become readers, that generally happens in childhood, so there’s some fundamental thing going on there, and I felt like that’s something that parents would want to know, and I think frankly as a society and as a culture we need to know, because reading is, to my mind, the door to empathy. It’s the most powerful form of storytelling there is.
What’s one piece of advice from your book?
I would say the most fundamental thing, and this is a hard one during quarantine, is it’s the teacher’s job to teach a child how to read — It’s the parent’s job to teach a child how to love to read. The way I would amend that for quarantine, when unfortunately a lot of parents were put into a role of where they had to be the person if not doing all of the teaching, taking a much more active role in that process, is, It really doesn’t matter how old your child is when they learn to read. It’s like tying your shoelaces. If you learn to tie your shoelaces at the age of 4 or if you learn to tie your shoelaces at the age of 10, it doesn’t fundamentally change how good of a shoelace tyer you’re going to be at 20. In this country, reading is generally taught at an age when many children are not cognitively ready.
My advice to parents during a time like this where they might feel worried if their kid is in that age range, reading instruction is a big part of their school day. I would say to them, don’t worry. Your child will learn to read, and if they learn to read a little bit later, you might end up saving yourself a lot of grief and your child a lot of grief because being expected to learn how to read when your brain cognitively isn’t there yet, it’s incredibly frustrating. Every parent knows something a child finds frustrating is not something they will come to love.
What books are on your nightstand?
Right now, I’m reading “Lawrence in Arabia,” by Scott Anderson. It came out in 2013. I actually started reading it after watching “Lawrence of Arabia,” the film, with my 13-year-old son, and he was asking a lot of questions that the movie raised about the Middle East during that period, and I realised I can’t answer a lot of these questions. I’d had that book on the shelf for a while. We reviewed it in the book review. I interviewed Scott on the podcast, and he has a book coming out in September, so I thought, This is what I’m going to read. In the queue after that is Trevor Noah’s memoir, “Born a Crime,” which I can’t believe I haven’t read yet. My daughter has it for assigned summer reading, which I didn’t know when I borrowed it from our au pair who is from South Africa.
For every South African of this current generation, Trevor Noah is such a hero, and I heard from our former book critic Michiko Kakutani, who is a huge fan, that the book is really great.
What’s the last great book you read?
The last great book that I read was Ted Chiang’s story collection, called “Stories of Your Life and Others.” It’s his first collection of short fiction. I had read his newer collection “Exhalation,” which was one of our 10 best books of 2019, and absolutely loved it. I just have so much admiration for Ted Chiang. I think he is just one of the true great minds. A very interesting mind, so different from my own, so thoughtful and thought-provoking, very philosophical and yet totally engaging stories that really use complicated questions around science and math and the ways in which these sometimes abstract notions and cosmological questions intersect with real life and actual human beings.
Another one I read that’s really fantastic is by another person I think is an original thinker, and is constantly making me go “oh, yes” and “why didn’t I think of that,” or “I thought of that but I wouldn’t have thought to express it that way,” is Emmanuel Carrère and his most recent essay collection, which is “97,196 Words: Essays.”
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Well, Emmanuel Carrère and Ted Chiang are alive, so I had to put them on the list. As a critic, I love Robert Gottlieb, who reviewed Carrère for us. I think our own critics at the Times — I’m biased, but Parul Sehgal, Jennifer Szalai, Dwight Garner — I just think they’re the best. I have so much admiration for them.
What’s your go-to classic? And your favorite book no one else has heard of?
I love classics. I’ve been reading a lot of 19th century novels; for me that’s a form of escapism. The last two I read were “The American” by Henry James, which isn’t my favorite James, and “The Mayor of Casterbridge” by Thomas Hardy. I love Hardy, he’s so depressing. I love books that make me cry, and I love books that are depressing.
The other writer of 19th century fiction I only recently discovered is Wilkie Collins. He was a great friend of Charles Dickens, and wrote for Dickens and his magazine. Another friend of someone much more famous who I also love is William Dean Howells, who was Mark Twain’s best friend.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
My favorite heroine as a child, and she has stayed with me for a long time, is Meg Murry in “A Wrinkle in Time.” I just found so much to both identify with and admire as a child. I loved her and I loved Becky Sharp. I love the tragic, sort of complicated, heroine.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I loved books with best friends and big families, because I grew up with seven brothers. I loved anything that felt old-timey. I was just like always old inside. I loved “All-of-a-Kind Family” and these books called “Ginny and Geneva”; they were really dated by the time I got them, with cloth-bound covers with no pictures on them. I loved Nancy Drew. I liked books where it felt like there was a lot going on.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
That answer changes all the time because I just want people that are going to be sharp and witty and entertaining. I would say Fran Lebowitz, H.L. Mencken, and Christopher Hitchens. They’d probably all hate each other. I think it’d be interesting, and they’d all argue.
“How to Raise a Reader” is published by Workman and is available at Bunch of Grapes. To register for the Vineyard Haven library event, visit bit.ly/tisburystorytimes.