Books

When Reading is Worse Than Scrubbing Toilets

 

I had been standing in lucky check-out line #7 at the grocery store for about ten minutes. (Yes, I always choose wrong.) 

They were having technical issues with the register, so three strapping, young male clerks battled in heated discussion over the possible fix. When talk turned from technology to techno music (ugh), a grandmotherly manager — with a hair switch that could keep dozens warm at night — strolled over to check things out.

She had a book under her arm, so always curious, I craned to see the title. No luck. I thought of a comment I recently heard; “If I can’t see what they’re reading, how am I supposed to properly judge them?” I smirked at the memory, wondering what this higher-up was peeking at in the back room while her worker bees buzzed about.

“Here. Hold this,” she said, handing the book to the nearest member of the hive. 

Clerk #1: (Looking at book) “Aw, come on!”

Manager-Lady: “Just help me out. The book won’t bite.”

Clerk #2: “Eh — he doesn’t know how to read anyway.”

Clerk #1: “Yeah, right. But I hate it. I never read.”

My stomach dropped. Were “never” and “read” just used in the same sentence?

ML (Manager-Lady): “Come on. What’s the last book you read?”

Clerk #1: “Dunno. For school.”

Clerk #3: “Magazines? Nothin’?”

Clerk #1: “I’d rather clean toilets than read!”

I died a little bit inside. (Because, clearly, this kid had never scrubbed a high-traffic toilet.)

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Not everyone likes to read, and there’s constant discussion in the Children’s/YA lit world about the high percentage of boys who stop reading for pleasure beginning around the middle grades. Not all boys, of course, but enough that it’s a concern.  

Hearing Clerk #1 declare war on reading was sobering. It made me think of my two young boys who still get excited every time we bring new books home from the library — boys who can be found reading in sunbeams on lazy afternoons.  The thought of that possibly changing someday made me sad.

ML seemed just as disturbed as I did. “What about Harry Potter?” she asked.

Clerk #1: (Offended) “No way!”

“The movies are pretty good,” Clerk #2 offered.

“The books are better!” blurted another shopper from behind.

Well, well — I picked the right line after all.

ML: “The Book Thief?” 

Clerk #1: “Huh?”  No dice.

ML named book after book, and author after author. She gave up all pretense of fixing the register — the reading practices of her employees were far too important. 

I was really starting to like this woman.

Clerk #1 continued to answer in the negative. ML’s mention of Stephen King didn’t even get a head-nod of recognition.

I couldn’t take it anymore. The title of one of the books my luke-warm-reading husband favored popped into my head. “How about, The Count of Monte Cristo?!”

(Silence)

(Silence)

(Silence)

Um, okay. Maybe not the best example. 

“Nothing. No reading,” said Clerk #1 breaking the calm.  He reached forward, making the universal sign for “scrub-a-dub-dub.” That, or he had broken into interpretive dance. “Yup, I’ll take the brush instead.”

Just then, Clerk #3 started waving to get our attention. “Okay, I gotcha this time!” (Pause) “Dude. Clean toilets, or… read Playboy?”

Clerk #2: (Laughing) “Yeah, their articles are awesome!”

A male customer chortled in (assumed) agreement. ML and I rolled our eyes.

Clerk #1 thought. And thought.

ML glanced meaningfully at the customers. “Boys,” she whispered. Her words demanded professionalism, but her eager expression showed that she was waiting for the answer. 

The crowd leaned forward. What would it be? Would he choose cleaning toilets over reading…Playboy?

Finally, with a look that was appropriately abashed, Clerk #1 bit his lip and mumbled, “Well, um, I’m only seventeen. Can’t buy it, yet.”

Maybe there was hope for him turning into a reader after all.

********

This re-telling was largely for fun, but getting boys to read (and helping them to become life-long readers) is an important crusade. I’m thankful to know many writers who create worlds to draw them in.

*Find me on Twitter @amandahoving

51 thoughts on “When Reading is Worse Than Scrubbing Toilets”

  1. I volunteer at an elementary school to help poor readers by doing activities and reading to them. 80% of these 1st through 3rd graders are boys. This project has been regarding to me because the boys generally begin to like reading through it. We need to focus our resources on helping boys learn to like to read.

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    1. I think that it’s wonderful that you’re volunteering to help those kids. Yes, with some it’s a matter of actually learning to read. With others, it’s maintaining an interest. In writing this post, I did come across a few book/reading websites that are solely for boys or men. Maybe I’ll post a few links later. Thanks for reading mairedubhtx!

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  2. Haha, great story! It seems like I know many more gals than guys that love reading. And most of the guys have that one specific genre they stick to. My hubby will read sci-fi or Robert Jordan and that’s about it.

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    1. Hi Jennifer — I think part of the problem is that the YA market caters to girls (their main audience), so there’s simply not enough books of interest for boys of that age-group who are looking to read. Then they stop reading, so the demand for those types of books isn’t there…etc., etc.

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  3. This is the one thing I am desperate to drive home with my boys, now 8 and 5. I have the oldest hooked for now. He’s loving The Quest of the Warrior Sheep – with a title like that, I want to read it!

    Here, here to a lifelong love of the written word. Minus the money shot, of course 😉

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    1. Hi Ash — I’m glad your oldest is hooked — that’s the key, I think. My husband isn’t much of a reader, but said that he never was, even as a kid. Since my boys are both big readers (at 8 and 7), I’m hoping we can hold onto that. It gets hard as they get older, though. My girls (who are in junior high and high school) love to read, but with homework, activities, and books they have to read for school, they aren’t left with huge amounts of time to read for pleasure. With teen boys, I’m thinking it will be even harder to convince them to use free-time for reading instead of wanting to pick up a remote.

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  4. I can’t tell you how many college-educated adulted I have come across who, when I mention a book I’ve read, will respond with “Uh, I don’t read books.” Some will then give me reasons, always involving how busy, busy, busy they are. Also, whenever I’m in a doctor’s wait room or an airport or on a plane or train, I am astonished at how many people just sit there, staring into space. It hurts my heart. Seriously.

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    1. That hurts my heart, too, Renee. I always have a book in my car, so whenever I play “the waiting game” (which is often while carting people around) I have something to read with me. I know everyone has their likes and dislikes, but I really believe there are books out there for every type of reader. You just have to look for them.

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  5. Two of my brothers only read when forced, the eldest reads when he has time (he’s a big Terry Pratchett fan), and the youngest (ten) reads a mile a minute, barely pausing between massive tomes of military history, young adult fiction, and the encyclopedia. He read the The Hobbit and the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy in two weeks. We have high hopes for that one…

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    1. Hi Melissa! Yes, there are definitely boy readers out there, which is wonderful. But I don’t think it’s as expected as it is with girls.

      Hopefully, your two non-reading brothers will come around. 🙂

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  6. What a sobering commentary on today’s male youth. I hope my boys grow to be readers like yours are, Amanda. If your fellas are taking the time to sit down on their own and read, I don’t think you have to worry about them abandoning what is obviously a beloved pasttime.

    Here’s what I can’t believe: I was at some silly jewelry party a few weeks ago and sat next to a woman I’d met once before. I had a book with me, she asked what it was about, and after I gave her the quick synopsis, she said, “It sounds good. But I never read. I don’t like to. It feels like a waste of time.” Later, she told me she’s a third-grade teacher. Talk about soul-crushing. I want to rescue her poor students.

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  7. Thanks for posting this story. I wonder why Clerk #1 never reads….maybe he had a bad experience in school? My ten year old son had a bad experience last fall with the librarian over a damaged book and wouldn’t touch a book for two months. He suddenly wanted to read the Harry Potter books, but borrowed “The Order of the Phoenix’ instead of starting with book one. I gave him my copy of ‘The Sorcerer’s Stone,’ and he’s enjoying it so far…

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    1. I’m glad your son is back to books, Jennifer. There are so many possible reasons for why Clerk #1 hates reading. I may have to turn into the “book fairy” (See Christi’s comment below), and leave something at the store the next time I’m there. That’s not pushy or anything 😉

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  8. This was so funny, yet sad at the same time. I had a similar experience with a girl at my congregation after church (talking about her college major). I just can’t understand not wanting to read ANYTHING. I’m not a fan of Harry Potter or Twilight, but at least they got YA’s reading SOMETHING (and it wasn’t written for 26 year old, childless me, after all). Hopefully, I don’t have this problem with whatever spawn…er, children…I may have ;-).

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    1. I agree 2blu2btru — when someone can’t find ANYTHING to read, I’m thinking they just need someone else to point out books that would interest them. Get thee to a library, folks!

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  9. I don’t mean to brush aside (oh, yeah–pun TOTALLY intended there) the important message behind this post, but I have to thank you again for making me laugh first thing in the morning, lady. Seriously. You’re a gem.

    Now back to the point–er, the OTHER point. I watch my little ones as my husband and I read to them and I am so thrilled at their hunger for stories, but I honestly take it for granted often that they will continue on with this need to read, to explore new worlds via the page. Presumably these young men were read to at a young age, and maybe even enjoyed it then. What happens in the years between being read to and being able to read on one’s own is what compells my interest now. Figuring out HOW to keep that passion for stories alive always.

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    1. Oh, thank you, Erika. Glad you enjoyed it!

      Yes, those middle years can be tricky. There’s just so much going on in life (even when you try hard not to over-schedule) that you really do have to make sure you carve out time for reading. It can get pushed aside in the rush of things.

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  10. Interesting story! (and entertaining as always!!) But, like you, I’m not completely surprised at this exchange; I’ve been reading a lot about this problem. Thank goodness my own personal experience with my son was not at all like this–he was an early and constant reader. And thank goodness for writers like you who are addressing it!

    One of my favorite parts of this blog post, however, was the comment you recently heard: “If I can’t see what they’re reading, how am I supposed to properly judge them?” THAT I will be filing away for an appropriate time!

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    1. Thank you so much, Julia!

      Yes, that comment really hit me, too. I’m a total book snoop. It’s often the first question I ask when I haven’t seen someone in awhile; “What are you reading?” I must know. Oh, and I never mentioned in the post, but after the whole register exchange occurred, I finally saw the manager’s book — Twelve Sharp by Janet Evanovich.

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  11. It’s interesting that boys tend to stop enjoying reading and girls tend to stop enjoying math around the middle grades. Why is that? Do we adults encourage them less in those areas?

    I have a friend who is a history teacher who finds that it’s essential to get her students to understand why history is important, why we study it. Maybe we need to do the same with literature.

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    1. Hi Jacquelin — I think social norms do have a lot do with it, but aren’t the sole reason. And yes, promoting the importance of literature is a wonderful thing. That’s why librarians rock!

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  12. I came to your blog through a comment you posted on “Amy Writes”, came to see what you were about, and almost lost my vision. I’m certain my eyeballs started to shrivel into the back of my skull when I read that comment about rather scrub toilets…omg!

    I probably read more books in a month than he’s ever read in his life. O.O

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  13. We have a well-stocked children’s section in our bookstore, but we rarely sell children’s books! Most kids today (my own included) just aren’t reading, unless compelled to for school!

    I taught myself to read at age 3. My parents took my brother and I to the library every Saturday, where we’d each get six books. I would be finished mine by Wednesday, and begging my parents to go back to the library to get some more (we never did!).

    When I had my girls, I spent any extra money I had on books for them…there was never a shortage of reading material (they also have library cards). My oldest daughter (age 25) reads now, but the 16-year-old and the 12-year-old almost never do. My 19-month-old granddaughter loves books so far…I hope that continues!

    Wendy

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    1. That’s sad that your store doesn’t sell many children’s books, Wendy. Since yours is an antique book shop, could that be the reason? Meaning, parents are looking for the newer books? I only ask because normally it seems that the children’s sections are the ones that are hopping the most.

      I think reading can go in spurts, too. Maybe kids will stop for awhile in their teen years, but pick it back up again when they’re not being forced to read at school.

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      1. That could be part of it, Amanda…we have very little Harry Potter, and no R.L. Stine or the vampire saga of the day. We do have timeless children’s classics like “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, “The Wizard of Oz”, “Little Women”, “Heidi”, “The Five Little Peppers”, “Toby Tyler”, “The Wind in the Willows”, along with many children’s series books which came out between the 1920’s and the 1970’s (Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins, etc.).

        Wendy

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  14. Yes, maybe there is hope for the young man. I hope that things will change in this nation for boys. Parents possibly can help. I know you encourage your boy. I worked hard to encourage my children to read. My daughter is an avid reader, and it has served her well. My son couldn’t be persuaded. His daddy didn’t like to read either. This may have played a part. Blessings to you…

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    1. I’m sure that with some people no amount of encouraging will get them to enjoy reading — just like no amount of encouraging would get me to start scrap-booking. It just doesn’t interest me.

      Thank you for visiting, Carol Ann!

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  15. This is great! Great topic, and very well done! (BTW, I love The Count of Monte Cristo. I’d rather read it than Tolstoy. Try to smile.)

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  16. Timely read! I was just telling my partner the other day that the fact that he read books for enjoyment was sexy to me. lol. And he votes too! What a keeper! 🙂

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  17. Love those check-out line moments.

    My son reads books on his own for school, but my husband and I read books with him as well. He likes that one-on-one time, and I get a chance to read some of those stories that I missed growing up (or some of the great stories that have recently come out). But, I’ve noticed that if I recommend a book to my son, he flat-out says no. On principle. I don’t know where he gets that stubborn streak….I’ve had to buy books in secret and leave them on his bed and then his interest is peaked. I’m thinking that soon I’ll have to hire an anonymous book fairy.

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    1. Every time I go to the book store I end up buying a few too many books, so I stash them away for special occasions. Sometimes those occasions are when someone asks, “What should I do?” and then a book they’ve never seen before appears on our shelf. So, yeah, the book fairy is a fabulous idea, Christi!

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  18. Love this discussion. My boys are 7 and almost 8. We read to them every night. They read a bit on their own, but prefer our family reading time. I was just thinking the other day about how to get them to want to read more on their own and wondering the best way to encourage them to be lifelong readers. Our daughter (age 18) is still a big “free reader.” She complains when school provides too much homework, cutting into her reading time. I used to teach high school and I actually taught “The Count of Monte Cristo” and I remember a number of the boys saying it’s the first book for a class they actually finished. At the time, I shook my head and vowed that my boys would be readers. Time has taught me the truth to the adage; you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. I’m hoping more of your readers have some tricks to share with me.

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    1. I think my husband has read, “The Count of Monte Cristo” three times 😉

      You’re so right, Jane — you can’t force them to drink. But encouragement can help. As I said above, I think finding the right book for a particular individual can change everything. Finding that book, though, is the tough part.

      Thanks for your comment 🙂

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  19. When my son began to read, he loved it. He would read everything he saw, and I was thrilled out of my mind. Now he’s sixteen and he could’ve been one of those boys in your post. And when he does read, his comprehension is almost non-existent. I wonder if television, movies, and video games have made him lazy and passive. Reading, as easy and enjoyable as it is for you and me, is like work for him. I hope he rediscovers the joy someday. Meanwhile, keep up the great work. Your blog is a wonderful discovery.

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    1. Since your son loved to read as a kid, I’m guessing this is just a little blip, and that he will rediscover that joy. That’s my hope as a parent of young readers — getting through the blips and grabbing the prize in the end.

      Thanks so much for your kind comments! Good to meet you.

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  20. I’m with you. It makes me SO sad when I hear a kid say they don’t like to read. I stand by the fact that my love of reading took me to college and got me my job. Because reading equals writing and if you don’t know how to write. Well then, I guess you’ll be scrubbing toilets for a living.

    Great post, Amanda.

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  21. My male students read for assignments, but I do hope they become lifelong readers. Realistically, I know that some of them will grow up and rather scrub a toilet than read.

    The girls are more likely to get excited over books.

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  22. What a wonderful post. Though it sounds like science fiction. NOT READ? what an impossible feat.
    He could come clean my toilets, then I would have more time to read 🙂

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  23. I realize this blessing more and more.

    My entire house is readers.

    I remember coming across an article waaaaay before I had children, that said, “If you want to raise a reader, you must have a houseful of books.”

    We did just that.

    And all 3 are readers.

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