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May 10, 2023

An Unspoken Culture of Reading

Brendan Slocumb is a musician, music educator, guest conductor, and the celebrated author of the book club favorite THE VIOLIN CONSPIRACY. His latest novel, SYMPHONY OF SECRETS, is another love letter to music wrapped around a compelling mystery that echoes through generations. In his blog post, Brendan recalls growing up immersed in a culture of reading, even though he didn’t realize it at the time. As he says, “Reading was never a punishment; it was just something we did. I had no clue that my mom was quietly giving us the incredible gift of how words could entertain and create new worlds.”


As an adult, I’ve heard that kids should grow up immersed in a culture of reading. But when I was a kid, if you’d asked me about reading, I would’ve laughed and said that I didn’t have a clue what you were talking about. Culture of reading? No way. I was a lot like my friends --- playing kickball, riding my bike and practicing my violin. There was nothing really that special or book-oriented about my family or me.

Or so I thought.

Here’s the secret. All the time I was growing up, my mom was quietly, stealthily, constantly surrounding me with books. It never felt like an imposition, though --- just part of my life. I didn’t even notice.

I’d come back from elementary school, and “Star Blazers” would be on TV. I’d plop down to watch, and my mom would yell from the kitchen, “Turn that off. Finish your homework and read your book.” I’d grumble and crack open my books, and I’d have to get my friends to fill me in on what happened on “Star Blazers.” I’d watch it for myself on Saturday reruns.

I didn’t even notice that there were books in my house for me to read. During the school year we’d go every other Saturday to the library; over the summer we’d go every week. I don’t remember how old I was when she started taking me --- probably three or four --- but I was sure that going to the library would be miserable and boring. That I’d get stuck checking out all these useless books that I didn’t want to even look at, let alone read. But she let me get books I liked --- science-related titles about dinosaurs or birds.

Every couple of nights, my mom would ask my siblings and me, “What’s your book about?” and we’d all talk about what we were reading. So we couldn’t just flip to the back and make something up --- we had to read the whole thing. That’s how I learned that the first bird was called the Archaeopteryx, and that the dinosaur that looked like a Brontosaurus (like Fred and Barney used to eat on the Flintstones) was actually a Diplodocus. I never thought it was boring to talk about the books; it was just something I did. I realize now that mom was teaching me responsibility and patience, teaching me how to think about and talk about concepts and plots. But at the time I was just excited to tell my brothers and sister about the Archaeopteryx’s teeth.

When I was seven or eight, my mom would give me a quarter to buy what she called “funny books”…what civilized society would call comic books. I liked the comics mostly because of the artwork, but one  --- Thor --- I bought for the pictures and started reading it, cover to cover. The story ended in a cliffhanger, and I couldn’t wait to get the next one. I read comics throughout school and college and as an adult. Now I have over 10,000 boxed away in my office. And don’t even get me started on action figures.

So, yeah, I guess we had an unspoken culture of reading. We’d read every night in the summer and on weekends during the school year. Reading always came first: reading, then cleaning (my room and the dishes), and then reading again. Then everything else --- TV and kickball and my violin. Reading was never a punishment; it was just something we did. I had no clue that my mom was quietly giving us the incredible gift of how words could entertain and create new worlds.

We grew up. My older brother went into the military, my younger sister became a doctor, and my younger brother and I became music teachers. But reading, and the love of books, was one trait we all shared. Although if you asked any of us, we wouldn’t think that all those trips to the library, or conversations about Diplodocuses, or checking out the comic book illustrations were actually about reading, or books, or words, or ideas. Nah.

All that stuff was really about family, and the connection to each other, and insights into the world. Which, of course, is what books truly are.

Thanks, mom, for teaching me all this. And thanks for the five bucks you had to shell out when I lost John Donovan’s I’LL GET THERE. IT BETTER BE WORTH THE TRIP. I don’t think I can ever truly pay you back for everything you gave me, but I’m working on it.