Why Read?

Letters to Your Students

Like many high school English teachers, Jim Burke frequently encountered students who "claimed to 'hate' reading, who found it a chore, a curse." Such sentiments, he writes, "are what I wake to each day... They form a challenge to my profession, demanding that I somehow explain why books matter...."

It was "with such students in mind" that Burke decided to write a letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, inviting that paper's readers to write to his students "about your experiences with books, perhaps telling them what role books and literature have played in your life."

He received more than 400 letters in response: "They kept coming day after day, and so we began reading as many as we could in my class. Soon letters began coming from other newspapers, other regions of the country; I realized people had sent my letter on to other publications, extended the invitation to other communities.

"My students, mostly sophomores that year, were visibly affected by this attention.... [The] letters have lived in my classroom, each kept in its own plastic sleeve, for these past six years; on free reading days, students often take down the binders and read them, turning to other students to share something, or wrinkling their brow in confusion or disagreement. For the letters present to us not just erudite scholars, but soldiers and students, felons and lawyers, teenagers and 8-year-olds, kindergartners and cattle ranchers."

From the letters he received, Jim Burke selected 50 and published them in a heartening little book entitled I Hear America Reading: Why We Read - What We Read. We have reprinted some of those letters here, for you and your students to read. And we add this thought: How about writing a letter to your own local newspaper, inviting people in your community to write to your students about what reading has meant in their lives.


To the San Francisco Chronicle

Dear Editor:

In an era of decreasing commitment to literacy—how else to explain the failure of the state, for example, to adequately fiend the libraries?—it is no surprise that most students, too, are bypassing books.

Instead they look elsewhere for information, for entertainment, for experiences. I would like to invite you to write to my high school students about your experiences with books, perhaps telling them what role books and literature have played in your life.

I would be just as interested in hearing from the 6-year-old about her favorite book as the 60year-old whose life was changed by the reading of a book. Send your letters to me at Burlingame High School. Thank you, and keep reading.


Jim Burke

To Whom It May Concern—

That means whoever is awake if Mr. Burke is reading this to you. Don't let me keep you awake, go back to sleep, because this is a C.O.F writing this letter. What's that? Oh, a C.O.F.? That stands for Crusty Old Fellow.

Let's get down to why I decided to write this letter. I was born in 1931 so I qualify as a 60-year-old. The rest of the qualification was, "...whose life was changed by the reading of a book." Sorry, but my life has not been changed by a single book, not even the Bible which has some damn fine stories. However, my life has been changed by hundreds, perhaps even a thousand books, because each book has a unique idea, one tantalizing line, one shocking proposal, one beautiful thought. Some books have even more than one great thought!

In the book by Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, he has one character say (This is a rough quote, so don't get picky, okay?), "There are lots of things to live for; some things to die for, but there is nothing to kill for." Isn't that great? Wouldn't it be terrific if everyone in the world could think like that?

Don't let Mr. Burke fool you: He can't make you read. Neither can I nor anyone else, if you don't want to, but if you don't read what has been written by people like Ray Bradbury (Dandelion Wine), John Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men, Travels with Charley, Grapes of Wrath), Richard Bach (Jonathan Livingston Seagull), Kahlil Gibran (The Prophet), Henry David Thoreau (Walden), Shel Silverstein (The Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends), The Collected Works of Robert Frost, Jack London (The Call of the Wild and The Sea Wolf), the list goes on and on and you will not find those books that you really like. However, it is like I said, no one can make you read, all I can do is feel a deep, deep sorrow for you if you do not do this for yourself.

End of lecture.

Perry J. Rablin

P.S. Good luck to all of you, and you too, Mr. Burke.

*  *  *

Dear Mr. Burke:

What role have books and literature played in the life of the Sandstrom family (parents Don and Joanne, sons Donald and Erik)? Writings of John Muir and Colin Fletcher sent us into the Sierra for a 40-day, 240-mile back-packing trip (the John Muir Trail plus) when Donald and Erik were eight and six. National Geographic, Melville, Stevenson, Conrad, Bligh, and Cook infested us with an itch to sail the world. Since we couldn't afford to buy a boat, we had to read plans and construction manuals so we could build one. Anduril, the 40-foot trimaran we built (named after the sword of Aragon in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of the "icons" of our family), has taken us on two circumnavigations.

The first trip, begun when Donald and Erik were 13 and 11, took us five years. Except for four months in Cyprus, the boys didn't attend school for five years—but we read about 800 books (from Darwin to Louis L'Amour). Donald had to take the GED in Rhodes, his SATs in Cyprus and Spain. He was accepted at UC Berkeley and graduated with a degree in civil engineering. Erik majored in English, graduated from California State University at Long Beach and now teaches English in Lodi.

When we returned from that first circumnavigation, Don couldn't find a job, so he went to the library and read books about building houses (different from building boats) and designed and built (with help from the rest of us) a home for us in Oakland.

Having read much about the Great Barrier Reef, Don, Erik, and I took a "quickie" 16-month circumnavigation to see it. That trip I at least kept track of what I read during the year (I had to fly back after 12 months to get back to work); the list is enclosed.

Reading, of course, inspired writing. I've written numerous articles about our travels for various sailing magazines. When book publishers wanted a book quite different from the one I wanted to write, we formed our own publishing firm, Earendil Press (name taken from Tolkien), and published There and Back Again, the story of our first circumnavigation (title is the subtitle of Tolkien's The Hobbit).

We wouldn't have done any of these things if we hadn't read books. We were inspired and empowered to do them because we read books. Other activities we can't/won't be able to do we can experience through reading books. Readers aren't limited to one life at one place and time in history. Past, present, future, and worlds that never were are open to readers. Through reading books, psychology majors (Don) and English majors (me) can learn to do things they never learned in school.

If you think your class(es) would be interested, we'd be happy to visit and talk about books/show slides of our trips that relate to books (Darwin's voyage to the Galapagos; Robinson Crusoe Island; the Bounty mutiny and Pitcairn Island, etc.).

Yours truly,
Joanne Sandstrom
Managing Editor
Institute of East Asian Studies

*  *  *

Dear Mr. Burke:

Your letter struck a spark in the mind and heart of a former teacher. First to my own life—books have brought the wealth of the universe, a realization of the intellectual achievements, the spiritual insights, the aesthetic pleasure, the ingenuity in all fields that our ancestors attained and passed on to us. Without the treasury stored up in libraries, we would be in the Stone Age.

In my classes I used to repeat an account of a woman whose identity I have unfortunately forgotten. She had been arrested for political reasons in Europe before World War II and subjected to solitary confinement for four years. On her release, her friends were amazed at her serenity and the clarity of her mind. When asked to account for this and to what she attributed her ability to have maintained her mental equilibrium, she said that she had no explanation but that she did know how she had passed her days. All her life, she explained, she had been a great reader and had traveled a great deal. Some days she would recall some book she had read and in her mind would go through the content of the book, live in its ambiance and work out her own reaction to it. Other days she would recall a particular place she had visited and relive the experience, imagining the sights and sounds, smells and feelings stored up in her memory. A mind filled with things outside herself had enabled her to people her loneliness and surmount her isolation.

Books can bring the whole world into our lives.

Sister Christina Maria Weber

*  *  *

Dear Mr. Burke:

Your students might reflect on what has motivated and enriched my 67-year-old life: books are man's best friend. Take me for an example. By the time I was 25 years old, I had lost a brother in World War II, a father in a fishing accident when I was four, a mother by heart attack, a cherished maiden aunt only 37 years old, and grandparents on both sides before I was 6.

How else could I have survived without books, all kinds, history, poetry, novels, and the Bible.

Enclosed is a book for you and your students.

Dr. Frank L. Keegan

*  *  *

Do you know what Newton did? What made him famous? Neither did I until two years ago. But I'd studied (and received three degrees in) engineering and knew a great deal of math and physics. A book I borrowed from a library where I'd been a professor for almost 25 years then, told me on my first working visit back to my Ph.D. alma mater, UC Berkeley.

After reading bits of it, I bought my own copy and read every word.

Allen Klinger
Professor of engineering

*  *   *

Dear Students:

I grew up on the streets of Brooklyn, N.Y I went to a Catholic grammar school where I didn't do well. I was also raised in a family of abuse. Alcohol was the big problem. I started drinking young and never really got much done. Alcohol keeps you in a trance. My life changed very much by going back to school and reading books. Books have taken the place of alcohol. I now read about a book a week.

The most important thing I learn from a book is that we are all human beings. We must learn to love unconditionally. Everyone has shortcomings. That's what makes us human. Please don't make fun of people's looks and how they feel. Learn to get in touch with how you feel. It's OK to get angry, cry, and to disagree with anyone. You must have your "feelings."

We are all "different," and we are all capable of much Love.

Kevin Burns
Real Estate agent

*   *  *

Mr. Burke:

I'm a helicopter test pilot and flight instructor for the U.S. Army at Los Alamitos, Calif. I have over 7,000 hours of helicopter flight time, and I am currently the only female test pilot in the AH-1P Cobra helicopter. I am also the only female test pilot in the country in the OH-6A and UH-1M helicopters.

Books have always been important to me. I remember Nancy Drew as one of my early favorites. I've enjoyed so many books over the years, but the one that stands out for me is The Search for Amelia Earhart by Fred Goerner. I was in high school when I came across it.

I had always wanted to get into aviation and be a pilot, but the doors were closed to women in the 70s in the field of aviation. However, I remember reading about Amelia Earhart, her struggle and her around-the-world flight in 1937.

I could understand her frustrations and the excitement of her goals. Because of people like Amelia Earhart who dared to reach out, I believed I could accomplish my dream. And I did just that. Eight years after graduating from high school, I became California's first woman aviator in the U.S. Army Reserves. Today, I continue with my dream by flying seven different types of helicopters.

Books have always been a part of my life. I have my own library in my home (mostly aviation and biographies) and my own encyclopedia set (something I had always wanted to own). I read every night before I go to sleep. Some of my favorite authors are: Dean Koontz, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, Dale Brown, Stephen Coontz, Scott Carpenter, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Danielle Steel, and Larry McMurtry.


Geri Bowers
Helicopter pilot

*  *  *

Dear Mr. Burke,

When I think about what reading means to me, two important places come to mind: the small neighborhood library down the street from my house, and my cozy little pink bedroom, which has looked the same for more than eight years. These two places have provided the atmosphere in which I can think and feel, and discover so much about the world.

Some of my first memories are of my parents propping me up on my bed next to them and reading me amazing stories about everything from magic fairies to field mice falling asleep in their soup. Soon my favorite bedtime plea became, "Just one more," or "Read it again!" And eventually I was old enough for Pajama Story Time at the neighborhood library down the street.

A little after dinner time, my sister and I would march down the street in our pajamas, sometimes holding our favorite stuffed animal, for a story in the Lions Den (the children's room of the library). I vaguely remember my first trip to this special gathering. I was so excited after all those years of seeing my sister indulge in this summer-evening event without me, I couldn't believe it was finally my turn, too. It was all that I had hoped for and more. The stories were fantastic. Soon enough I began to take my own after-school trips to the Lions Den to check out my three books for the week.

When we finally returned from the library (it usually took at least a half-hour to narrow down my choices), I would rush up to my room to set them out in the order they would be read each night. Looking back, I am amazed at how much even these children's books made me feel.

I was so happy for Arthur and D.W. (after reading almost every single book in the Arthur series by Marc Brown) when their parents brought home their new baby sister. I remember telling my grandma, "I wish I could reach into the book and hold her. She's so cute" And I remember being scared for Mitzi every time I read Tell Me a Mitzi, when she would take a taxi with her little brother, just the two of them, in the early morning hours on a New York City day.

Even though I don't attend Pajama Story Time anymore, and rarely even check out a book from the "library down the street," I still read stories in my little pink room before I sleep. Though the readings have changed and the stories have matured in difficulty and length, many of their themes and morals are drastically similar. And even those which are not really stories at all, they still make me feel and think, just on different levels, or about different things.

Lindsay Rosenthal
High school student

*  *  *

Hello, Mr. Burke...and students:

Shall try not to set your literacy teachings back too far... and punctuation rules and stuff like that there...but I've been running a cattle ranch for 40 years and one does get a bit rusty around the edges.

Oh, I read a lot... don't get me wrong... but I read for relaxation now, for mind "unwinding" at the end of the day and no longer to acquire knowledge that I'm durn sure I'll never put to use. Or even to read to broaden my knowledge of places I've never been to or are likely to see. Bein' 69 does that to many a person... not every person but a lot of 'em....

Y'see... a livestock operation, a cattle ranch, is sort of a demanding thing. There's always a fence to look after... maybe fix... what with thirty miles of it around and criss-crossing the place. Some of the wood posts have been in since it was built some 70 years ago. Dry out here... and the posts are cedar... but they're beginning to give way, finally. And there's hay to put up and then one moves the durn stuff to the feeding corrals and pretty soon it is winter and you gotta feed every day and then spring and calving time and then summer comes around again and it's time to hay, etc., etc., etc.... Just a small operation... what you would probably term a mom and pop operation... for we had sheep up until 40 years ago and it was too much hassle what with sheepherders and hired help at lambing time and a sheep being the most exasperating, dumbest thing ever put on this green—sometimes, even out here—earth.

But as a kid, growing up in the country... until high school the country schools had seven to maybe fifteen kids in all the seven or eight grades, one teacher for all... well, if one was ever to learn what it was like on the "outside" you had to read a book. When you get around a team and wagon or horseback, your horizons are kinda limited... especially in the winter time. Summer school... eight months of the year, stay home December, January, February, March. Come time I was of school age, my mother, brother, and I came down from the sheep ranch which was just seven miles south of the Canadian border and took over a country store and post office. Half mile walk to school. That one year. Next year, they consolidated three rural schools-the homesteaders were pulling out in bunches as it was in the Depression years of the '30s so they didn't have as many students to teach. Two mile walk—each way—when a car didn't come along but part of the time, we had a saddle horse to ride. Healthy... and tiring, didn't need a whole lot of parental urging to go to bed at night....

Had a small community lending library in one corner of the store and I guess I read every book in it. And magazines, we subscribed to a few, and there was a lot of swapping of those old paper-pulp westerns and detective magazines among the neighbors year around. And there were two other sources of reading material... there being three different mail routes from rural towns that met at Genevieve, the store-post office and in those days the farmers all milked some cows and sold cream to the creameries. The mail carriers took it down to the railroad in five-gallon cans and it was shipped along and the cans came back via carrier also. They had been washed out and all, but to soak up the moisture and keep them from rusting inside, the creameries would, after drying them, toss in a couple of paper-pulp magazines to help soak up the last moisture. Boy, when I discovered this, I had it made!! If, that is, the people weren't waiting there for their cans when the mail came. One had to be a fast reader because if I didn't chuck two magazines in the can when I removed the originals, there would be the dickens to pay. Not only might cans rust, the other folks looked forward to getting a couple free magazines also. The other source of reading material... the drug stores in town sold the magazines, nickel, dime, sometimes two bits, and those they could not sell, they could return for a refund and all they had to do was tear the front covers off and send them in. So you could buy a bundle of assorted reading material... comic book or two, lots of detective stories, some westerns, some real literary magazines, some movie mags, whole bunch of stuff for two bits. Dad had one or two sheepherders up north to keep supplied with reading material... sheepherders having lots of spare time on the better days... and I got to pick through the bundles when he came from town.

No electricity out that far. Poor radio reception and radios required batteries that were always running down so that was not much of a means of getting the word. So it was mostly reading. Folks got it made... in that way... these days.

Reading won't ever go out of style. Books won't. As yet, there is no way to turn a TV program back a page or two to view again if you don't quite "get it." Video is something else... if you have unlimited numbers of cassettes around, if you got all the time to search through them, you can do quite well. On the current status of it, what it looks like today.... But what about how it was, what about the history of this place, that place, this development, this industry? Here you can do best with books, with encyclopedias. Way better... by far the best way. One with any amount of natural curiosity about how things come about, evolved... you have to turn to the printed page. The ability to do so easily means a lot. It means a whole hell of a lot when your turn comes to go out looking for employment. Yeah, sure... you can call up any amount of information by punching the proper computer keys. But presently, you still have to be able to read it. Maybe now, maybe soon, they'll have computers that talk to you and tell you what you want to know. But the printed page, my friends, is a long ways from becoming obsolete. Learn how to get familiar with them and their contents....

Now me, new knowledge I don't really need much at sixty-nine. Got the cows, got the ranch, the kids got through college in good shape, I figure just to kind of ride it out the remaining years. And I imagine I can. But for you... with much of life yet ahead of you, a job, then a career, perhaps commitments that won't allow you to travel, to see the world, with the natural curiosity of youth, books will fill in where TV and videos kind of hit around the edges.

Had it to do all over again, I'd maybe do it about the same and even wind up here. Country living, boarding out for the high school years, armed combat in World War II, four years of college, an honors graduate (changed from engineering to agriculture in the process)... well, I had my options and one of the reasons I had 'em was because I was mighty familiar with the printed page and the words on it. Could have taught, could have gone into agricultural research, gone with banks or the government agencies as an ag rep man, there was opportunity. I won't say it all started with the Genevieve Community Lending Library or those milk-can pulp magazines or the variety of literary offerings in the two-bit sheepherder bundles. But everything has gotta start someplace... we all know that.

Good Luck,
John H. Barton
Cattle rancher

*  *  *

Dear Mr. Burke and Students:

My name is Jimmy White, I'm 29 years old and a psychiatric case manager for a nonprofit agency that provides mental health services for the mentally disabled. I'm writing to you because I want to let you know how important books and reading are to me. When I was a child, my family was extremely poor and as a result we had to move from town to town so my parents could find work. By the time I was 13, I had lived in 22 different places! This constant moving meant that I was always "The new kid on the block" and therefore always felt ostracized. I never felt like I belonged anywhere. Forming friendships was difficult, especially when the threat of moving so often loomed over my head; it's hard to get close to someone when you know that you will probably leave them.

Given these circumstances, it's no wonder I hated my world and thus began reading. Reading offered me a healthy escape into other worlds. I say "a healthy escape" because we all know how many other forms of escape there are that are unhealthy: drugs, for example. Anyway, I found that through books I could enter other times, existences, realities, etc. I could become the hero or the hero's companion. Some of my favorite books then were books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. He's most famous for creating Tarzan, but he also wrote some fantastic science fiction series that are quick and easy to read. Other favorites of mine were A Separate Peace by John Knowles, The Collector by John Fowles, Salem's Lot by Stephen King (I couldn't sleep for two weeks after reading this one!), The Hobbit [and Lord of the Rings] trilogy by Tolkien, Watership Down by [Richard] Adams, 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

These books were an important part of my growing up, and I'll cherish the memories I have of staying up well past my bedtime because I couldn't put the book down on various occasions. Today reading is one of my favorite pastimes. I started keeping a book diary in 1990, and each year I try to read more books than the previous year. Let me make a suggestion: If your world is scary or lonely or confusing or overwhelming, don't try suicide or drugs, try a book instead. It's a much more rewarding, enriching, wonderful experience than those self-destructive ways (and believe me, I'm speaking from personal experience!) I hope this doesn't sound preachy because it's coming from the heart. I sincerely wish the best for each of you.

Yours truly,
Jimmy White
Psychiatric case manager


Jim Burke teaches English at Burlingame High School in California. He is founder and moderator of CATENet, an electronic roundtable designed to promote discussion among English teachers throughout the nation. This article is an excerpt from his book I Hear America Reading: Why We Read, What We Read (Heinemann, 1999, © Jim Burke). Reprinted with permission. To order, call toll free 800/793-2154; or visit the Heinemann Web site at www.heinemann.com.


American Educator, Fall 1999