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?