I’ve been reading the New York Times since elementary school, spurred on by my mother. She was an avid Times reader from as long as I can remember. As a stay-at-home mom, she was always extremely supportive in my education. Every morning before school, while we were waiting for the school bus to pull up to our hours, she would present a folio of articles that she had cut out from the previous day’s newspaper. We would sit next to each other at our dining room table, which overlooked our driveway, and I’d ask questions as I’d read. As I got older, I’d quickly read the article to myself, and we’d discuss the topic.
I learned a lot from my mother during these discussions. For example, only knowing the sense of the word “invalid” to mean “incorrect”, I was confused when a Times article referred to sick people using the same word. I told my mother, “It seems mean to call sick people invalid. It isn’t their fault that they are sick.” My mother was confused by my statement, re-read the corresponding passage, and then showed me the alternative definition in the dictionary. Or, my mother would give me the “World Briefing” subsection, which contains several small news pieces that were often more quirky than the longer articles. These strange tidbits were a boon for discussion.
Moreover, I learned early in life how to have a substantive conversation with an adult on an “adult” topic. This certainly contributed to my propensity for engaging with teachers at school or my parents’ friends at their parties. I was precocious and this precociousness later opened several doors through networking and merely being sociable.
Many of the articles my mother gave me were from the obituaries section. The Times’ obits are notable for paying respect not just to world leaders and celebrities, but even to people who were not household names and who really impacted the world even in a subtle way. By giving me these articles, my mother taught me about how a person’s worth to the world is evaluated: fame, money, and excitement do not really matter. Making a difference does.
My mother was born and raised in Brooklyn, and despite being transplanted out of the busy city environment and into a sleepy country town, she always felt connected back to her home city through the Metropolitan section of the Times. She passed down that love of the city, where I now call home, to me by presenting articles about the goings-on in New York. She would point out articles involving places that she used to frequent as a kid, or that she’d like to experience for the first time on one of our many day trips. Clyde Haberman didn’t know it, but he was a babysitter for me for minutes at a time with his column twice a week, every week.
Sometime in middle school, I started reading the paper cover-to-cover by myself on weekends. With my father on the golf course, my mother and I would wake up late and she would cook a hot breakfast, usually French toast and tea. We’d sit at the kitchen table for hours and trade sections of the Times to each other. One of us would announce an interesting article, and if both of us had read it, we’d talk about it. I think the most discussed articles were those that exposed hypocrisy of politicians, especially Republicans. If an article caused one of us to chuckle, we’d be obliged to read the passage aloud.
Probably sparked by an uneven skew in the number of articles in our early morning review, I took a special interest in the Science Times on Tuesdays. I remember specifically looking forward to Dennis Overbye’s newest writing. This interest eventually propelled me into the science section at the local bookstore, where I started to pick up mass-market science books, mostly written by physics professors. Even if they are fanciful and only full of half-truths (as the whole truth is too complicated to sell and explain to the American population), they got me to read and got me inspired by the cosmos. I specifically remember reading J. Richard Gott’s “Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe” and being awed by the ideas presented in the book. My mother bought us tickets to hear him speak at the American Museum of Natural History.
I started to read the Book Review section, but only the reviews of science and history books that recently hit the shelves. Eventually, I outgrew the popular books, and moved on to buy science textbooks from the same book store section. I still treasure my copy of the “Introduction to Algorithms” book that I purchased very early in high school. When I purchased it, I could barely follow the complexity of the first few chapters on the most elementary of algorithms. But the algorithms slowly became tools in my toolbox as I was faced with new programming challenges. Who knew that reading the Science section of the Times would eventually lead me to a computer science degree and beyond.
My mother told me later in life that she was surprised that I had better standardized test scores in elementary school in English reading and writing compared to mathematics. She found it amusing that I took a strong turn toward the latter by the end of middle school, and even then only managed to score 10 points better on the math portion of my SATs than the verbal section.
Despite my interest in technology, I never really enjoyed the Technology section. I found it awkward: most of it is business news involving a particular sector of business, and the remainder is about consumer technology that will have no discernible impact on the future of humanity. (I’m looking at you, David Pogue. I vaguely recall sending him a strongly worded letter about being annoyed by one of his columns, and he wrote back a surprisingly thoughtful response. That exchange reinforced to me the idea that even if I disagreed with someone, it certainly doesn’t mean they are a bad person.)
Reading the Times also broadened my horizons from just science. Domestic and global politics intrigued and infuriated me. Seeing ordinary people suffer because of the incompetence and corruption of a select few who have been given power and money made me – and continues to make me – very angry at the state of the world. My mother and I always remarked when the Times decided to place a picture of a dead person on the cover, usually the victim of some horrible far-away atrocity. As a global society, I know we can do better than this.
Around the time I got interested in world affairs, I started to enjoy the Week in Review section (now the Sunday Review section) for being just that: a retrospective on the week’s events and a bigger-picture analysis of their meaning. The contributors would often suggest solutions on how to fix the problem-du-jour and I would reflect on whether I agree or not. This got me started in watching “Meet the Press”, which has a very similar format, and was moderated by the great Tim Russert, whose interrogative insights brought great clarity from the names behind the politics. (I also watched the “The McLaughlin Group” simply because it is a bunch of old, cranky people yelling at each other).
My interest in the business section came later. At first, it was interesting to see these large entities being fiercely competitive and making money. Soon, it became apparent that these companies do not account for the public’s interest in their actions. Nevertheless, our world and our lives are dominated by these corporations, so it was still useful to know something about how they work. That said, many of the articles are not about corporate dealings at all, but are case studies on practical psychology and how to apply it out in the world.
I remember reading the wedding announcements through the years and mentally noting where the bride and groom went to school and worked. They seemed really happy and successful, and even prestigious, given their story was published in the New York Times. But I was never the most popular kid in my public school and I got picked on a lot for being different. I distinctly remember the day in 2002 when the Times first started publishing same-sex announcements and being very happy about it.
I read most of the rest of the sections in an attempt to better relate to other people. Only briefly (during a strange period in college) did I ever have an interest in fashion, but I’ve always read the Style section, such that I’m able to hold a conversation on etiquette or what a modern man should wear. The real estate section is interesting if only to get a peak into how the 1% lives and the problems they are confronted with. And so on and so forth for the other sections.
After being exposed to the New York Times for over two decades of my nearly three decade-old life, I still read the Times today in a fashion that suggests those mornings in the kitchen, especially on Sundays. When I wake up, I’ll read a few articles to get my mind going for the day (and sometimes to stay in bed for a little while longer). I read the international and domestic news first and most completely. When I remember to, I’ll seek out the World Briefing section online, as it is not easy to find. I’ll then skip to the Sunday Review, which I especially look forward to. I’ll jump back to the New York section, paying particular attention to the “Sunday Routine” column, which features the Sunday habits of a notable New Yorker each week. I love seeing how other people live and I often get tips on good restaurants or cafes around the city. On a more basic level, the column makes me feel better about my own, uneventful-but-delightful-and-irreplaceable routine that I share with my girlfriend. Then I’ll read the “Corner Office” and “The Boss” columns of the Business section in an attempt to learn something about managing teams and career choices. I might skim the Book Reviews for – still – any science or history tomes. Next, I’ll hammer out the other sections – Travel, Arts, Real Estate, etc – paying strong attention only to a few of the articles but reading at least the beginning of most.
I’ll save the Times Magazine for last, as if for dessert. I like seeing the dazzling floor plan of the multi-million dollar apartment that no one needs on the first few pages. Then I’ll read the “Talk” column, which is an interview transcript, often very pointed, with someone notable. At this point, I’ll reliably wish that William Safire were still alive and writing his “On Language” column. Even if one disagreed with his politics, everyone agrees that he had a unique mastery of English and its dark and twisty innards. In the last few years, I’ve been enjoying the “Diagnosis” columns, again owing to my mother, who kept dozens of physician desk references and medical textbooks in our library, which I read as a kid for no good reason. I like playing along with the column and trying to apply my feeble medical knowledge to a case straight out of “House”. I may or may not read the cover article. If it is about politics, world affairs, or murder, then I’ll read it. If it is a human interest story or on sports, I’ll skip it. I still don’t understand the purpose of the “One-Page Magazine”.
The number of articles my mother cut out for me dropped off after I stopped taking the bus to school. By then, I often read the Times sooner and faster than she did and would tell her about the interesting stories to read. When I left for college, she would send care packages consisting of a folder stuffed full of articles to read, some of which with a note about why she thought I’d be interested. On the front of the folder was always a note on a Post-It that would inevitably end, “Love, Mom.” Our phone conversations would often be about the articles we read recently. She eventually learned to use email and would send me even more articles. Probably since I was less and less available, she would bring additional folders along to our periodic dinners for our shared birthday or other occasions, which formed the basis of the conversation at the table. She even started to give similar folders to her close friends, each one personalized with articles for each friend’s specific interests.
After she died, we found a chest in our house where she kept her clippings before distribution, which would never happen again. The box was all but overflowing. Each article represents a conversation that she would have liked to have with someone, and most of them would have probably been directed at me. That chest is an interesting symbol of 24 years of tutelage.
There are a few obvious lessons here. Teaching is good, but inspiring learning is even better. This is best done when the mind is young and maleable and can even start with just a few minutes a day. I was given a guiding hand through a source of knowledge. At some point, I stopped needing the assistance and I was able to navigate myself. I was given choices on what areas of knowledge to investigate and I latched on to the ones that were most interesting to me at the time. Those interests were allowed to evolve as my mind changed and as I learned more.
I’m indebted to my mother for the effort she expended in giving me a world-class education, right in our own home.