During my stint as a middle school reading and writing teacher, I began each year with an introduction to the Community of Readers’ and Writers’ Contract. Like many younger grade teachers, I took my role as a taste-maker and trend-setter very seriously. If they didn’t fall in love with books and/or writing now, when would it happen? Plus, I had most of my fun obsessing over modeling a love of books.
Seemingly simple tenets, they all come from different places–different students I taught, professional developments I attended, or adult readers I respected. It’s very surprising to me how much this Contract guides my thinking and feeling about books today.
In a community, we…
- Find ourselves as readers – I’m guessing you could tell people what you love… but can you? What would you say? Would you cite authors? Genres? Topics? You should know, and you should be adamant about it. I’m still figuring this out myself.
- Respect and encourage others for their levels and interests – Less relevant for adults, though something I often have to remind myself of just in life. Passing judgment is bad (obviously), and something I need to work on.
- Recommend books – I obviously have no problems doing this myself. Nothing is more gratifying than soliciting a positive review about a book you’ve recommended. On the flip side, I take earnest recommendations very seriously. If I weren’t open-minded to this, I’d have missed out on at least half of my favorites-of-all-time list.
- Talk about books – This is a deep-seated need for me. There have been books I’ve thought about long after I’ve finished them, and sitting alone to ponder is highly unsatisfying and yes, perhaps, a bit lonely. I like to be told I’m wrong sometimes (shocking, I know), but it is only from others that I am allowed the chance to challenge my preconceptions and assumptions and think of things in an entirely new way. I process things myself through talking, and this is almost always necessary after reading a great book.
- Appreciate language – Not just relevant for poetry (though maybe some think that – I certainly did at one point). Every book is not going to teem with life-changing similes and metaphors, but writers become writers for a reason. Maybe it’s to share an agenda, make you cry, make themselves money, or release their own emotions, but at the most basic level, they are putting together words you didn’t think to put together yourself. And that’s pretty awesome.
- Pay attention to authors, genres, and topics – A part of the Contract that mostly makes sense in conjunction with agreement #1. If you aren’t attentive to and reflective of the choices you make (and why), you will never “find yourself” as a reader.
- Try new things – My favorite and most frequently invoked agreement of all. I recently read ZW by Zadie Smith, an author who hovered on my radar screen since early high school. I ended up slogging through it and almost abandoning it more than once but persevered for a book club. Saying I was happy that I read it would be an overstatement, but I did glean a very profound sense of accomplishment. I will most likely never read a book by Zadie Smith again, but I tried something new and showed a certain dedication that leaves me feeling very satisfied. This book did make me think, and I’ve read several things lately that have prompted new thoughts because of ZW. This also is closely tied with #2 and #3 – if I’m respecting others for their levels and interests and taking their recommendations, I might read something completely life altering. Lastly, if I return to the same authors and the same genres, I become lost in them. I begin to lose my perspective on why I love what I love, and what I read becomes mechanical and almost rote. I lose my enthusiasm. I’m very purposeful in my balance of choosing something familiar right after having read something brand new.
- Lend books to each other (and respectfully borrow) – I’m lousy at this. I can count at least four books I have on my shelves that don’t belong to me. Why am I such a jerk? Better yet, I’m missing copies of two books right now that I want back from others. Damn it. This agreement needs some work.
- Write about what we read – This is something I haven’t done since college and am attempting to accomplish here. Whether or not others find this to be interesting is of course to be determined, but it gives me new purpose and helps me process internally in a way that is lost from just talking to someone or simply thinking alone.
The best part of being a part of a community is diversity of voices and the fact that you are not alone. If it’s a forced community – like a classroom – there are so many possibilities and challenges to making it great. If it’s a chosen community – like a book club or a group of friends – the potential satisfaction and joy is limitless.