My children rarely see me with a book, but my mobile is ‘an extension of my hand’

Mary Minihan: ‘There are lots of things to feel guilty about: reading shouldn’t be one of them’

I feel guilty about carving out time to read for pleasure when there’s always so much else that needs to be done.

When life is hectic, opening a book during the daytime can seem like an elicit act, something to be squeezed into moments when remaining stationary is a requirement – on public transport, waiting poolside at a child’s swimming class or perhaps anchored in the hairdresser’s chair.

No less a person than John F Kennedy had mastered the art of reading anywhere and everywhere, even at the breakfast table with his children. Can you imagine it? No one could say he didn’t have many demands on his time.

His wife Jacqueline, in her interviews with the speechwriter and special adviser Arthur M Schlesinger after JFK’s death, said: “He’d read walking, he’d read at the table, at meals, he’d read after dinner, he’d read in the bathtub, he’d read – prop open a book on his desk – on his bureau – while he was doing his tie... He really read all the times you don’t think you have time to read.”


My other half, who does much more housework than me (I hear my mother’s voice saying “That would not be hard”), can sit down on the couch of an evening as chaos erupts all around with a chunky political biography. Meanwhile, I’m fretting futilely about what might be done to make the next day run smoother than the one that is concluding.

Who is setting a better example to children?

My son asked me recently why I had all these bookshelves full of books I never read. I was affronted, as I’ve always considered myself a “great reader”, but the fine layer of dust coating the paperbacks told its own story, and I realised I rarely model the behaviour I hope my children will adopt.

I do still read a lot, but usually late at night when most everything has finally been ticked off the to-do list and everyone else in the house is asleep.

My children rarely witness me pick up a book, but cannot avoid being aware that my mobile is, shamefully, as the Finns say, “an extension of my hand”.

For the humble book, in whatever format, must now compete with an enticing device that stores photographs, breaking news alerts, WhatsApp messages, online shopping opportunities, gossip, podcasts, a diary, tweets, games and texts. It even hosts the occasional call.

Is it any wonder the youngsters crave screens?

I'm so grateful for the gift Dad cultivated in me: a love of reading, and the opportunities for mental escape it has provided over the years

In my childhood home recently, I came across a photograph of myself in my late teens, so utterly engrossed in a book that I was unaware of the camera that captured my mismatched outfit and house slippers. I longed to be that girl again, free of responsibility and distraction. She would have found the idea of feeling guilty about reading so alien.

My father seemed to read to me every night when I was small. I appreciate that, during those times, my mother was downstairs doing the essential work of managing the house after a long day working outside the home. But I’m so grateful for the gift Dad cultivated in me: a love of reading, and the opportunities for mental escape it has provided over the years, not least during the Covid pandemic.

Sometimes I confess that reading to our children is the last thing we feel like doing of an evening, but we plough on with thanks to Roddy Doyle, Julia Donaldson and others.

The fascinating and disturbing books we read as children stay with us forever. Your memories will be different from mine, depending on where and when you grew up.

In the 1980s, as the cold war was drawing to a close but the threat of nuclear bombs still dominated our childish consciousness, I read When The Wind Blows by author and illustrator Raymond Briggs of The Snowman fame.

The poignant story of a humble older couple’s attempts to survive a nuclear winter, which had such an impact on me, was Briggs’ first adult book but had been placed in the children’s section of our local library presumably because he had retained his signature cartoon-strip style.

Re-reading it recently, after so many years, gave me some insight into the helpless dread today’s children must be feeling not only about the war in Ukraine but also about our damaged environment.

I often wonder how we learned to unlock the key to reading. Did we just “look and learn” and, through constant repetition, become able to recognise small clusters of letters on a page as words that meant something and magically came together to form a story?

My children use a system of letter sounds called Jolly Phonics, of which I was initially sceptical – and apparently my northern pronunciation of vowels and dipthongs is “all wrong” – but I must admit it is working for them.

I don’t mind what they read. It doesn’t have to be literature. I’m happy to hear them chuckling at their comics and graphic novels. There will be much competition – already is – from gaming and streaming services in the years ahead.

They’re currently obsessed with the age at which they will be “allowed’ to get a phone, and I laugh when they ask what age I was when I got my first one, because of course I was already an adult by the time mobiles “came in”.

I don’t suppose I’ll ever be able to give up the phone now.

But there are lots of things to feel guilty about: reading shouldn’t be one of them.