Reading: The Gateway Drug

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By Lance Chilton, M.D.

Lance Chilton HeadshotI love to read.  For more than 60 years I have read anything and everything, ranging from great novels and medical journals to  — if nothing else is available, cereal boxes.  My mother used to remove the Cheerios or Wheaties cartons from the table when I was eating breakfast so there would be some chance at conversation or instruction as to what I needed to do that day.  I still have a hard time going into a bathroom without a book or magazine or sitting in an airplane seat with nothing to read.  What torture those things are!

So I’m very sad to hear my young patients say, in answer to my question, “What do you like to read?” – “I hate reading.”

What do I hate to do?  Well, I hate to (think about) fixing my car.  I hate to cook.  I hate to have a conversation with someone I don’t know sitting in the plane seat next to me (instead of reading my book).

So who’s the bad person – me for disliking cooking, auto repair, and conversation with strangers, or my patient who dislikes reading?  Well, probably neither of us.  I don’t like to cook (I think), because my wife can do it so much better than I can that I have no need to do it.  I have poor spatial relations and a bad sense of how things work, so I wouldn’t be good at car repair.  I’m sort of an introvert, so it’s hard for me to strike up a conversation with a stranger.  But it’s a lot easier for me to say I hate car repair and conversation with strangers than for me to say I have no skill at these things – a lot less embarrassing too to feign hatred rather than admit a disability.

So it is with my non-reading patients, I feel.  First off, they have not had the joy of reading – cereal boxes, medical journals, or great novels like Winnie the Pooh or Charlotte’s Web.  Second, they will feel less bad about themselves if they say they hate reading, rather than admitting they have a disability.

There is a difference, though.  It’s not that I’m better than they are.  I will admit to my friends, like you, that I have a disability regarding my seeing relations between gears and pulleys in space, that I haven’t learned really how to cook well, that I don’t do well at making conversation with someone I don’t know and probably will never see again.  OK, but despite my disabilities, my life has been good, and I can find a well-recommended mechanic, marry a woman who’s a great cook (and artist and editor) or consult a restaurant menu,  bury my nose in a book instead of shyly making small talk.

But if you can’t read, you can’t really repair cars – you have to be able to consult the manual.  If you can’t read, it’s really hard being a cook, not being able to read a recipe.  It’s hard to be a fascinating conversationalist if you can’t read interesting stories and facts.  Here we live in a computer-fueled society – you might think reading was no longer necessary.  Wrong!  You’ve got to be able to read what’s on the screen in front of you and you have to be able to make your fingers form word patterns on the keyboard to get the infernal flickeroo, as my aunt called our computer, to respond to you.

So I’m not better than the non-reader – I’m just luckier in my choice of disabilities.

I suppose that reading is like tobacco or marijuana.  It’s a gateway skill, just as tobacco and marijuana are often gateway drugs to worse things.  Reading – the good gateway skill – is essential to reading not only car manuals, recipes, and fact-filled Wikipedia pages, but also to seeing the beauty of the novel or much of what society has to offer.  I guess I’m addicted to reading, and I’ll push my chosen “drug” on each and every one of my patients and those I care about.

For this reason, I was happy to attend a recent conference on dyslexia – difficulty reading based on inefficient brain connections.  Of many important lessons learned during the day, I’ll write about just one:  it’s important to intervene early, before school failure and its consequences set in.  The experts at the conference agreed that third grade is thelatest that one should start.  Beginning in fourth grade, skills like reading are simply assumed and are the basis for the requirement for a markedly increased volume of work based on the skills learned earlier.  Waiting until later multiplies the problems and the time and effort required to remediate them.

Dr. Chilton has been a practicing pediatrician in Albuquerque for 38 years.  He has previously served on the SWIDA Advisory Board.  He teaches at the University of New Mexico and sees numerous patients, mostly from poor immigrant families living in Albuquerque’s “International District.”  Dr. Chilton has been a regular contributor to a pediatric issues column in the Albuquerque Journal for the past 11 years.  He has been happily married (44 years) and has two children and five grandchildren.