ESSAY: Mother Always Said, "Read at Least 20 Pages a Day"

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By Joan Silverman

“You should read at least 20 pages a day,” my mother would say when I was growing up.  

In the annals of arbitrary rules, this was a good one. It was also the gospel according to Mom, who believed in the religion of reading. And she was one of its prime exemplars: Everyday before dinner, she would sit at her end of the couch — a Winston in one hand, oversized library book in the other. At around 20 pages, she was just warming up.

Fast forward several decades, and my mother’s simple dictate has grown surprisingly complicated. In today’s terms, are we talking about 20 pages of a print book, 20 Kindle pages, 20 pages of an online newspaper, or 20 cumulative pages of tweets? 

And what about audiobooks, and the argument that they’re somehow debatable as a form of reading — allegedly not quite books?

And while we’re at it, do graphic novels count as reading material, or do they constitute a separate medium altogether?

Nor are these frivolous questions, as they get to the heart of my mother’s creed. Surely she wasn’t suggesting an idle calculation, devoid of content; she envisioned something deeper, of value, that promised fortifying effects. Parsing those nine little words centers on what she meant by her use of the term “read.”

In my mother’s time, reading was typically a single, unbroken pursuit. It didn’t entail bobbing and weaving among diversions — clicking on a link, texting, taking a call. It was reader and book, in a kind of pre-digital communion. At its best, it promised an hour of quiet and thus, the prospect of focus. 

In modern-speak, reading was the opposite of multi-tasking. 

My mother wasn’t known for her prescience, and could never have foreseen the carnival of distractions that is contemporary life. But she was definitely on to something with the notion of a singleminded activity that engaged both heart and mind, and offered up new ideas, to boot. In that sense, she recognized old-fashioned hard copy reading as a refuge. That may be even more true today. 

She may also have had other things in mind. No doubt, she saw the value of importing other people’s words and ideas, different ways of speaking and thinking, and letting them marinate in the reader’s mind. With an opinionated young daughter in tow, perhaps she thought that books could serve as a counterweight.

I never asked, and she never specified, whether the 20-page daily minimum could include homework, or whether it was meant to provide extracurricular nourishment. It wasn’t that kind of rule. There was no penalty or punishment, not even criticism, when I fell short. If I failed to meet the basic requirement, it was understood to be my loss.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays, and book reviews. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune, and Dallas Morning News.