Nature vs. Nurture: Are Readers Born or Made?

Young Lady Reading by Mary Cassatt
Young Lady Reading by Mary Cassatt

On more than one occasion during my childhood, my mother came into my room to find me sitting on the floor, back propped against the side of my bed, knees bent, nose in a book. She’d mumble something in my direction — generally about it being a gorgeous day out, or the dishwasher needing to be emptied, or asking what I’d done at school that day — and I’m hum back and continue reading. If it was the dishwasher thing, she’d usually press the issue, but otherwise, she’d sigh and shake her head and leave, wondering aloud where precisely I’d come from.

This is not to say my parents weren’t readers. They were. They read the New York Times every day, and in a very leisurely fashion on Sunday mornings; there was a small bookcase in our family room that held a few dozen books of various sorts, including a volume of Shakespeare and some classics, some mysteries and modern bestsellers; my mom picked up books from the library periodically, whatever was newish or the occasional romance, and both of my parents would take paperbacks for plane reading when they travelled. But there was nothing obsessive in their reading habits, no getting lost for hours or days on end because a book had them in its grips. To be fair, looking back, this was in part because they were adults with responsibilities, and unlikely to slough off chores like feeding me and my brother or going to work just to read one more chapter. It didn’t seem to bother them, however, that their reading time was limited, or when real life dragged them out of the pages of a book.

I, on the other hand, read voraciously, and quite often to the detriment of other responsibilities. Math homework paled in importance when I was close to finishing a book. And things got ugly on the occasions I finished a read only to discover I was out of new reading material; I got very twitchy over this situation one particular Sunday, when both my local library and the closest bookstore were closed, and no one was home to drive me farther afield in search something new to read. I was an addict.

Even if my parents weren’t devoted readers on the scale that I was, I can definitely credit them with exposing me to books. My mother took me to the library all the time, and read to me even once I’d learned to read to myself. She signed me up for summer reading programs, and always bought me books at the annual school book fair. But she didn’t place any undue emphasis on reading over other pastimes; she also took me to ballet class and girl scouts and bought me math workbooks to practice my basic arithmetic. Nothing stuck quite the same way that reading did, and it’s not an addiction I’ve outgrown, though I’m better about doing my chores these days.

There’s nothing particularly scientific about looking back at my own personal experiences to determine whether readers or born or made. My brother, raised in the same household and with the additional exposure to a book-loving sister, never adopted the habit the way I have. He was athletic, and no one needed to pry him out of his room and into the sunshine. This suggests that there’s something inborn about loving to read, a personality trait that makes it more appealing. But I also firmly believe that it’s important to introduce kids to books when they’re young, because reading is a skill that develops over a lifetime, and children gain so much from exposure to different types of books. Perhaps the most devoted readers are a little bit of both: nature and nurture.

I’m curious about other readers’ experiences. Did you fall in love with reading as a kid? Come to it later? Has your love for books remained constant, or waxed and waned?

17 thoughts on “Nature vs. Nurture: Are Readers Born or Made?

  1. I, too, am an avid reader (I do still slack off on my chores though). Like you, I have been devouring books since I could read on my own. The number of books I read has dwindled as I have started working (and working extra hours), but my desire to read hasn’t lessened. My reading tastes have changed to where I’m now more open to reading fiction, non-fiction, and even some horror; science fiction and fantasy are no longer the only genres on my shelves.

    My older brother could care less, and my younger sister just started reading more since having her kids.

    1. Interesting that your sister’s reading more now that she has kids. Most of my friends with kids talk about having less reading time. Good for her. And yes, those pesky work hours, taking away from reading time… The trials of adulthood.

  2. I think for me it was constant throughout my life. I had to read books, even when the O levels or A levels were coming up. I have a big exam coming up in two weeks and I was reading Mill on the Floss last weekend. I think I’m obsessive. The funny part is that it was me who turned my dad into a reader and not the other way round.

  3. I definitely believe that readers are born. I think they can be made, somewhat, but that an obsessive love of reading is something innate. I share a similar experience with my brother. I, like you, love to read, while my brother probably hasn’t read more than a handful of books since graduating school. (And they were probably all car manuals!) 🙂

    My husband is also a reader, and we introduced books to our children when they were infants (as I’m sure you know, there is a perfect cadence for sleep to “Goodnight Moon”). Both my teenagers enjoy reading, but I don’t think they LOVE it like my husband and me. They seem a bit more like your parents – occasional readers. Sometimes I have to force my daughter to read a book, but then when she (finally) picks it up she can’t put it down. She’s funny though. She read “Divergent” in one day and when I asked if she wanted “Insurgent” she said, “Not yet. My brain is full right now.” With summer coming I think I have to get some good books. I don’t want her brain to become empty!

    1. I like your daughter’s idea of being “full” from a good book. It’s interesting how many words that we use in terms of food and eating also get applied to reading.

    1. There’s a thought, though there doesn’t seem to be any one way of turning into a book lover.

  4. I am the only avid reader in my family. My father would read the Sunday newspapers and I don’t believe my mother has paged through anything other than the Bible. I tried to do things differently with my sons by taking them to libraries, bookstores and reading to them religiously but neither one has grown into a reader. I am hopeful though that they will take after their father who only discovered the joys of reading fiction in his thirties…so not sure if readers or born or made.

    1. There really doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer. So much has to do with personalities.

  5. I actually tell this story a lot when I appear on publishing and writing inspiration panels. I was raised by my Italian immigrant grandmother who had a profound appreciation for language. As a result, she didn’t allow me to read children’s books; I was only allowed to read young adult and adult books, no Dr. Seuss. Because I felt like I had access to a world my classmates didn’t have access to, I read voraciously. I finished large tomes by Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Robin Cook in days each. Same as I do now.

    1. What a different approach! So often grown ups hold kids back and try to keep them from more mature books until they’re older. Though I’m kind of sad you missed out on kids’ books; so many of them are wonderful. I hope you snuck some, or have gone back to them when you got older.

      1. Yeah, my grandmother thought it was more important to expose me to advance vocabulary and complex themes than it was to shelter me from adult language and situations. I think it worked well and I might even do the same with my future children, though not as extreme. I have never gone back and read what I missed, but I don’t want to deprive my children of anything.

  6. My mother has always been a voracious reader, and she passed that along to me. In high school I’d sneak books under my desk in classes I didn’t like, which is probably why I failed 11th grade Algebra 2 and had to go to summer school. 😉

    I remember my brother liking books when he was little, but he seems to have grown out of it as an adult.

    My husband is also a voracious reader. Between us we have hundreds of books. Before our first child was born, we had a library of over 50 baby and child books for him. However, he doesn’t really seem to like reading and never has. He never sat still for books as an infant or toddler, and now that he’s in kindergarten and learning “sight words” he flat-out rejects sitting-and-reading time at home. On occasion he’ll let us read him something on my Nook, but mostly he’s just not into it. Our younger child, though, loves books so much we are currently on our second copy of “Goodnight, Moon,” and he steals his big brother’s books!

    I guess some of it is genetic. There are readers and non-readers in both my family and my husband’s family, and even among the readers there are variations: my MIL reads purely for fun and entertainment, my mother and I read for escapism, and my husband and his brother read for intellectual stimulation and philosophy.

    I keep hoping my older child will grow into reading. We know he needs glasses, but the optician is reluctant to prescribe them yet because he’s only 5 and has a variety of vision problems. Maybe when he finally gets glasses and can see better he’ll be more of a reader.

    1. Now I’m wondering how much of it, at least in childhood, has to do with that ability to sit still. Some kids are just naturally much more fidgety. They’d rather do anything physical than sit in a chair for ten minutes straight. I was a much calmer kid than my brother, who was very much the type to just want to head out and play; he did little league and ran track in high school. I suppose it could be harder to fall in love with books if your mind and body both wish to be elsewhere from the start.

  7. I think it must be a bit of both. My parents are both readers and read to us when we were young. In grade 1, I refused to learn to read because I was afraid they’d stop reading to me once I learned. When my teacher figured that out and my parents assured me they’d read to me as long as I wanted them to, I learned to read in a few days. I developed the skill but never the real love until I was an adult and finished school and university but my brother kept books stashed everywhere since childhood.
    Research has suggested the number of books in a child’s house directly correlates to the level of education s/he will achieve, even if the books aren’t read religiously. The idea is that a family that values books and can afford to buy them will value education.
    My own boys are split down the middle. They have the skill but only the oldest loves to read and he switches between reading exclusively non-fiction to exclusively fiction. My middle son will read, quite proficiently, for information but fiction doesn’t interest him at all.
    Thank you for this post, I enjoyed your description of your mom coming into your room.
    My kids are subjected to frequently burned pancakes because I think I can read and flip pancakes at the same time but it would seem I over estimate my multi- tasking skills. I have also turned more into my brother as i have a different book stashed in each car and on both floors of our house so I never have far to go to grab something in print.
    Great post.

  8. I was born a reader. Nothing could keep a book out of my hands from the earliest of days. I think back on so many greats… and know they genuinely helped me shape my response to life. In fact, when perplexed, I might think… what would Ramona Quimby do? As a mother… what would Mary Poppins say? The list is endless.

    But in my family, I am not the only one. I am, however, the only writer. And much like you, I have a brother and a sister who find books a bit of a waste of funds, which could have been spent far better at the video store or concert hall. Not for me, though, I could live at the bookstore, chew on a few extra pages instead of lunch, and spend most of my sleeping hours immersed in the pages of a book. And I suspect that is true of both my Mom and my sister, as well.

    So, I guess, I think the answer, like almost always, is a bit of both. I was born to read. My Mom fed a fire that birthed in my soul. I would have found these treasures without her guidance, but it would have taken me so much longer to own the fact that I am a bookie. That I was born to be a bookie. That I born to feed the bookie in others.

    Some once told me I reminded them of the character Matilda. Last week, I found out that was one of the biggest compliments I have ever been given. So here’s to the Matilda in us all.

    Keep bringing us the good ones.

    In kindness and purpose,

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