As the oldest of four boys, growing up amid the open spaces of Iowa, I was used to having more than my share of freedoms. Walking to school, fishing alone at night on a nearby river, and patrolling the neighborhood on my trusty Schwinn bike were all activities that I took for granted. So was watching television. My brothers and I never abused the TV privilege but we certainly enjoyed catching a college football or basketball game. My parents, who were both big readers, weren't fans of TV, and tried to limit our viewing opportunities.
When I was about eleven, one autumn day my brothers and I came from school and discovered to our horror that my father had installed a lock on our television. He said that he would unlock it for two hours every week, but that otherwise, it would remain closed for business. My brothers and I were shocked, irritated, and slighted. Arguments ensued. Ample time was spent cooling off in our rooms. Yet our parents didn't waiver.
At first we filled the holes that had been created in our entertainment landscape by spending more time outdoors. But as the weather turned nasty, we were forced to search out indoor forms of amusement. With some reluctance, we entered the world of books. Though I had always been a good reader, it wasn't until this moment that I truly discovered the joys inherent in literature. Soon I was reading two or three novels a week. A few of them were classics, but most were escapes into lands of dragons and wizards, samurai and shoguns. I began to read at all hours of day and night - while walking to the car, warming up the shower, heading out on vacation, and pretending to sleep with the covers over my head and a flashlight in my hand. I consumed books and they consumed me.
This love affair continued for many years thereafter. I consistently read two novels a week during my teens and twenties. At some point I decided that I wanted to become a novelist. I studied English in college, taught English in Japan, became a newspaper reporter back in Des Moines, and finally moved out to Colorado in search of my first novel. Shortly thereafter, I found that novel while on a backpacking trip to India, gazing at the Taj Mahal. I spent five years working on the book that would become Beneath a Marble Sky. To my delight, this novel ended up being an international bestseller and allowed me to write fulltime. I now have six novels out. My most recent, Temple of a Thousand Faces, is set in ancient Cambodia and based on the wondrous temple of Angkor Wat.
I often reflect on where I would be today if my parents hadn't locked up our television. I suspect that I'd be happy and have a good career. Yet I wouldn't know the delights of reading and writing - endeavors that fulfill me, that broaden my horizons in so many ways.
My wife and I have a fifth-grade daughter and a third-grade son, and we often struggle with finding balance in their lives. We explore the outdoors of Colorado, we travel, we read. We don't encourage television yet nor have we somehow locked up the screens either.
Recently I pushed some boundaries and took our kids to the superhero movie, The Avengers. They enjoyed it, and I think that it was fine in terms of fueling their imaginations. I was a bit horrified, however, prior to the start of the movie when there was an advertisement for some sort of hardcore home video game. The advertisement was nothing more than a nonstop glorification of guns, war, sex, and booze. I turned to my children and said, "Great - just what the world needs is kids sitting around all day with their eyes glued to this junk."
That advertisement got me to thinking. Though we didn't watch much television to start with, I decided that we could use even less of it in our lives. So these days we spend an hour each night, reading together as a family. I don't know if our children will someday thank us for this choice, but I suspect that they will. A love of books can only be a good thing. They'll have plenty of time ahead to stare at computer screens and iPhones, televisions and text messages.
I believe that as it did for me, reading will broaden our children's horizons, provide them with crucial skills, and ensure that they are informed, open-minded global citizens.
The joy of reading, I believe, is a gift that should be passed from one generation to the next.
John Shors is the internationally bestselling novelist of six books. His latest, Temple of a Thousand Faces, is a work of historical fiction centered on the legendary temple of Angkor Wat. For more information on John, please visit johnshors.com or facebook/johnshors.