Head of School’s Notebook: Reading on the Road

September 30, 2022

I flew to the East Coast last week. When I was a boy, airplane travel was a relatively infrequent occurrence. My family took the train or drove most places. My grandparents lived in South Carolina, so at least once a year we would drive from our home in Massachusetts to my cousins’ home in Washington D.C. We would park our car there and then take the train from Washington to Charleston.

In those days, Amtrak was perpetually delayed. So we would spend what seemed like the better part of a night and a day on the train. The thing I remember most about those trips is the time I had to myself. Some of it, whether in the car or on the train, was spent looking out the window and daydreaming. Don’t we all love to get lost in our imagination for a while?

Books, though, occupied the largest portion of my time. I always brought several on trips and often read most or all of them. As a little kid, fantasy and science fiction captivated me: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Piers Anthony, and the like. As I got older I’d read spy novels. Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy or Ken Follett were perennial favorites. It is hardly highbrow fiction but the exciting tales and the memorable characters kept me transfixed. I looked forward to traveling because I knew it meant I could be immersed in a great story.

I have not really changed my reading habits over the years since those boyhood odysseys. On this most recent trip, I brought a Lee Child Jack Reacher novel and a story about a gun-slinging westerner in late 19th century London called Mr. American. Great stuff which took my mind off the lack of legroom.

I didn’t see a lot of other people reading on my flights. Most were watching something on a screen. All the window shades were down, so there was no chance to marvel at the landscape below. I have asked our students at Cate how often they read and what they read. Based on data gathered over the last five years, our kids prefer fiction over non-fiction. Nearly 70% prefer reading an actual book over an audiobook or e-reader experience. On the Kern trip, I was heartened by the number of juniors who brought books, many of them appreciably more sophisticated and intellectual than my selections.

Seb Sutch ’24, for instance, brought a copy of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls. He admitted his mom had been encouraging him to read the book, but there was another more internal motivation that drove him. Said Seb recently, “It’s long been a goal of mine to be a reader of the literary ‘greats’, but I’ve always been a little daunted by the prospect of reading a book I’d usually only encounter in English class. This summer, though, I finally worked up the courage to realize that ambition. I worked my way through a few Salinger novels and more than enough Murakami. I began For Whom the Bell Tolls on my way to Cate, and took it to the Kern to finish.”

Jules Wecker ’24 brought another classic: Jane Austen’s Emma. He said, “I’ve recently been reading exactly what my dad reads, and I think it has been fun for both of us.” Tyler Martinez ’24 brought Looking for Alaska by John Green.

Many students tell me that they would like to read more, but that they just don’t have the time. They are right, of course. The pattern here is full, and recreation, when it does come, is rarely of the solitary sort. But I like the interest that I see in our students in the stories that are available to them. I can’t fault the evolution towards video. I love movies, too. And a great tale is compelling however it is presented.

But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t a little disappointed looking around the plane and seeing so few open books, or that I wasn’t encouraged in the backcountry to find our students reading. During the time that I would spend taking in the passing landscape on our family trips of old, I would find myself questioning what lay beyond or within all I could see. But when I would open a book, whole worlds full of nuance and complexity would gradually be revealed.

Our students want access to those very worlds. They understand creative power in all of its forms, especially in language, which is why they continue to read and to express a desire to read more. We will always encourage such aspirations. And in perpetuity I will imagine Cate students traveling home on breaks or on the bus to a game reading books of their choosing and finding the same joy and discovery on each page that I first did all those years ago.