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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Forcing children to read doesn’t work – it should be fun, not a chore

It was a chance encounter with a book in my school library that began my love for the written word

Antonie Robertson / The National
Antonie Robertson / The National

It was enough to make my friend weep. There she was in her colleague’s home, observing the household’s teenage son burning through pages of The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien. This was followed up by a tour of the kid’s burgeoning library, featuring works by Alexandre Dumas and others.

The amazement my friend felt at the young bookworm she had witnessed caused her to reflect on her own son’s aversion to the written word. The situation was clearly desperate enough for her to ask me to consult. “Tell him about how your love of reading allowed you to have this great job where you travel the world and stuff,” she said. “If I tell him, he will feel like it’s work. If you tell him, he will probably think of reading as a shortcut to having a good job and having fun.”

Despite her pithy description of what she thinks I do, I agreed to meet the 14-year-old. It was to be an awkward conversation, not because of his lack of enthusiasm, but more to do with the fact that I was just like him at his age. He loves smartphones; I was into my Atari gaming console, which came with more than 200 games. My parents tried their best, through a mixture of cajoling and threats, to get me to read but I waved them all off, saying that books bored me to tears.

My mother is bemused by the fact that I am now a voracious reader and, funnily enough, she really had nothing to do with it.

I can recall quite clearly when the book bug bit me. I was 14 and in Australia, and to pass the time at school I would rummage through the high school library. It was there that I came across the 1973 crime novel Hail to the Chief by American author Ed McBain. I remember being entranced by the cover, which featured the back of a motorcycle gang member who stood wielding a broken glass bottle. I read the first few pages and was hooked by the witty banter of the homicide cops as they stood over a dead body. I enjoyed the dark humour of the prisoners in the police station and the occasional action scenes. It all felt so thrillingly grown-up – the sensation was similar to the guilty pleasure of sneaking into a movie you weren’t old enough to see.

After that I read every Ed McBain novel our school library had in stock. This led to me penning my own crime short stories. They were mere carbon copies of McBain’s tales. From then on, my love of reading and writing grew, as did my academic grades, much to my mum’s relief. I eventually branched out and became a reader of a variety of literature, at the same time writing poetry and essays on football. It all resulted in the realisation that I needed a job where I could read and write and get paid for it. A newsroom in Abu Dhabi is where I wound up.

All of this would have proved anathema to my younger self, who thought of reading as an experience on a par with going to the dentist.

My advice to my friend’s son was plain and simple – read whatever you find fun and books that allow your young and rich imagination to take flight. My advice to my friend was to let him be, buy him those cheesy magazines and graphic comics – he’ll eventually get to The Hobbit.

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Read more of Saeed's thoughts:

Abu Dhabi has become a home very far away from home for many expats

The natoor is an enduring reminder of old-school ways

Brushing off the stigma of baldness

The story behind a signature: One UAE resident’s tale is a sign of the times

Spring in the UAE: A time filled with regret and guilt

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