reading’s rainbow

LeVar Burton wants to bring back Reading Rainbow. There’s a story over at Mashable about his plans to create an app, and about how he and his Twitter followers rallied to get the @readingrainbow handle from a squatter.

Forget the nostalgia(1) and the Lieutenant Geordi jokes. This is great news. Anything that teaches kids that reading is awesome is itself awesome. Because, as the Mashable article points out, Reading Rainbow wasn’t about teaching kids how to read; it was about teaching kids why to read.

And it occurs to me that that’s a really great question: why do you read?

I don’t mean particular books. I can tell you I read Infinite Jest because my friend Justin loved it so much and I was curious how someone could be that level of passionate about a book.(2) I can tell you I read Perfume: The Story of a Murderer because a rather insensitive person suggested that I wouldn’t ‘get it’ since I have no sense of smell.(3) I can tell you I just finished Why We Broke Up because the indomitable k all but shoved it my face one day and she and I have a history w/r/t Daniel Handler,(4) and plus she’s about as close to a literary soul-mate as I have.

I can tell you I read It because it was the biggest damn book in the elementary school library and I went straight for it. I can tell you I read The Sorrows of Young Werther for a class but loved it anyway. I can tell you I read On the Road because there was no way I was not going to meet up with Sal Paradise on my own road. And I can tell you I read Jitterbug Perfume because some guy I met exactly once talked about it one night at a diner and months later when I saw the book in the store I thought about how cool that guy was(5) and that anything he spoke so highly of had to be cool.(6)

But I can’t tell you why I read. At least, not so succinctly. I can’t even tell you how I started. Neither of my parents are big readers – they read occasionally but aren’t like me who always has a book. I imagine they allowed me to read because I didn’t like to sleep and at least if I were reading I wasn’t jumping on the bed. But they did encourage me, that’s what matters. Though it still doesn’t explain why I read.

And the truth is that I don’t have much of an answer. Like anything really worth putting a substantial amount of time into, I can’t really sort out why it’s worth putting a substantial amount of time into. Try quantifying why you’re with your spouse or significant other. Try quantifying any of your hobbies. It’s kinda like that.

What I know is this: reading affects me in ways that no other media does. Or can. And that is why I read. It awakens my sense of wonder. It makes me hungry to know more. To read more.

And there’s one more thing. I’m proud that I read. That of everything else about me, I am most proud that I am totally content to be alone with a book. I’m proud that there’s always a book in my backpack. That, in fact, I carry a backpack because I want to keep books with me.(7) Never in my life have I met someone who was proud that they just spent four hours watching television. But I know people who look forward to spending the day with a book with almost the same trembling voice one might use to describe spending the day with a well-trained call-girl from Singapore.

And that is also why I read. Reading carries with it a sense of accomplishment. And that’s what I want kids to feel, which is why I’m excited that Reading Rainbow might be back. I want them to feel that accomplishment. I want them to feel something other than the glazed indifference of television and movies.(8) That even if they didn’t like the story, they at least had to work to get through it. That finishing it means something more than having sat relatively still for 30 minutes. That is the real reward of reading.

So yes, even though I never watched it, I sincerely hope Mr. Burton can bring Reading Rainbow back. And I hope that kids love it…slightly less than they love reading.


  1. Which I can’t really myself get into because, outside of the catchy theme song, I never really had much to do with the show. By the time it went on air I was both a little too old for kids’ shows and already way into reading. Plus I’d already been burned by PBS, but that’s a story for another day.
  2. So passionate, for example, that Justin quit writing his blog – one of my favorite blogs of all time – a few days after David Foster Wallace died. We’re left with just this.
  3. She was wrong. And I try really hard to fart every time I walk past her office just to prove my evolutionary advantage.
  4. Adverbs-4-Life yo.
  5. He’s a jazz drummer so when I say cool I mean cool.
  6. He was right, and if I ever run into him again I’ll thank him.
  7. Plus I keep all sorts of purported emergency supplies, everything from USB adaptors to cutlery. You just never know.
  8. Not that there isn’t some great stuff on tv and in theaters. But everyone at least secretly knows it’s mostly pablum.
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