School vs. Readers

quietly reading...shhh

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
—Ray Bradbury

“I cannot remember the books I have read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

I have one formative memory of elementary school related to reading. On Halloween, when I was in grade 5, a supply teacher, or perhaps a volunteer of some kind, took a group of us to a small study room, dimmed the lights, and read Poe’s The Telltale Heart aloud with a flashlight under her chin. It’s important to note: I have no idea who this person was and never saw her again. Other than this one, shivery, excellent memory, I can’t think of another teacher in elementary school who encouraged any kind of love of reading in me—directly or indirectly. Without the influence of my family, particularly an older sister who is now a Professor of English, I doubt I would have taken it up.

Jennifer A. Franssen has written a superb piece for Canadian Notes & QueriesSchool is  no Place for a Reader, that ponders the irony of an institution—elementary school—that purports to foster reading as an important skill for children to develop, and yet offers little to no opportunities for actual reading.

Worse yet, according to Franzen, schools are becoming environments that are antithetical to real reading in the service of a utilitarian kind of functional literacy: “Arguably, the literacy agenda is a limiting approach that ill serves all children in schools. It is inarguable that it ill serves those who are already readers,” Franssen writes.

I find reading to be one of the chief pleasures in life. Many would agree with me that reading is transporting and enriching in a wide variety of ways. But, putting aside any such aesthetic and ennobling benefits, the habit of reading—of any self-directed kind, I don’t judge the format or content (much)—is an essential tool for success.

Over the past twenty years I’ve hired a number of employees in various white-collar, office jobs. Harry S. Truman once said that “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” From experience, I can say that readers, even occasional ones, have a distinct advantage in almost any workplace. Any white-collar job—and a large number of blue—requires paperwork, usually done on a computer. The advantage that any longtime reader has, is the ability to go off and sit quietly and focus for an extended period of time on a solitary task. Even the most type-A, salesman has to sit down and record that sale or finalize that contract in some manner. And I’ve seen people attain fairly high levels of employment—right up to VP level—who struggle with reading and writing. These executives can achieve a certain level of success, but most are mocked by their peers for their lack of these fundamental capabilities.

The assumption is that school will teach a child how to quietly concentrate on a task until completion, but I think that really happens at home now. Many classrooms are becoming barely controlled chaos punctuated by watching movies. Parents who are diligent in terms of quiet, focused time for homework can help prepare their kids for their future working life, somewhat. But a life-long reader, encouraged to read from an early age, will slip automatically into that focused space that real mental work requires.

Franssen is right to fear the emphasis in elementary school on literacy over reading. She quotes a teaching professional’s disdain for reading above your level: “Perhaps she is decoding that book, but she isn’t comprehending it.” Any lifelong reader knows that complete comprehension is never a criterion for either enjoyment or enrichment from a given piece of writing. She also quotes the positive influence of a Mrs Phelps, who said “And don’t worry about the bits you can’t understand. Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music.”

There are some professionals who would seem to agree, at least tangentially:

“The connection between reading speed and comprehension; a film is made up of still images flashed in rapid succession to simulate movement. Slow down the film, and the movement and meaning slows and the film’s impact is diminished. Viewers won’t learn as much about the film as if it were shown at normal speed. With reading the same thing can happen. When a person reads word by word, like frame by frame, they are not reading on the level of ideas. You need to read on some level that’s more conversational and allows things to coalesce into ideas themselves.”
—Doug Evans, Director of Planning, Institute of Reading Development

A child who is content to be awash in words and concepts they don’t immediately grasp, but will instinctively strive to place in context, will, I think, become a better critical thinker later in life. I’ve reread bits of experimental prose like J.G. Ballard or William Burroughs at different times in my life and gotten different things out of them each time. The experiences of my life have eventually provided the context I needed for those difficult passages. I believe it’s roughly the same process as when you’re a child and initially misuse some big word you got from Stan Lee in a comic: once that word falls into the right context, you never lose it again.

The one question I’m left with that is unanswered by either Franssen, or my own personal experiences, is this: was it ever better than this? If elementary school didn’t encourage me to read over thirty years ago, was there a time when schools did a better job of creating young readers?

“The most erroneous assumption is to the effect that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and so make them fit to discharge the duties of citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States, whatever the pretensions of politicians, pedagogues and other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everywhere else.”
—H.L. Mencken

Do those of us who become lifelong lovers of reading do so out of a perversely stubborn streak of nonconformity that literacy training can’t stamp out? Maybe we read in spite of school.

“…more gravel than pearls…”

Despite the evident reluctance to embrace new technology my last post might suggest, I’m cautiously optimistic about Oyster‘s attempt to build a Netflix for books.

I currently consume about twenty percent of my reading material electronically on an iPad, and I’m relatively comfortable with the medium. I found long stretches of reading a little unpleasant at first, but I’ve gotten over that challenge—largely because of using the iPad for business travel. Now that I’m acclimated, I almost enjoy my little screen as much as a book—almost.

For me, the decision of whether or not to buy a book electronically involves an instinctive (read: half-assed) calculus based on the following questions:

  1. Will I need to travel soon? (If yes, how small is a cheap paperback of said book?)
  2. How readily available is a cheap paperback?
  3. Did it just come out and can I not wait for a cheap used paperback?
  4. Does the method of printing & production greatly enhance the aesthetic experience of reading said book?

The intrinsic aesthetic value of the book still factors into my decision-making more often than you might expect, but not as often with novels per se. Novels I usually just want to read in the most accessible and convenient method available to me, which is often a cheap, used paperback I’ve acquired, or been loaned by a friend. There are certainly exceptions—lavishly illustrated volumes or signed copies or gifts—but they’re definitely exceptions. I have a small collection of signed first editions, but I didn’t really buy them as reading copies.

Cookbooks and art books, though, I almost always prefer a printed copy. I’m a sucker for fancy paper, glossy photos and intricate illustration. I have favourite fonts.*

So, based on this highly subjective “process,” the ebooks I pay money for are often recent novels I’m eager to read. Most of the China Miéville I’ve read—which is everything but his dissertation and latest YA—I purchased electronically the day it came out or soon after.

I also read a lot of free classics on my iPad; the most recent being The Metamorphosis by Kafka. And here we get to my one big concern with a monthly subscription to Oyster: there are a lot of free ebooks out there.

I love Netflix, but that’s because there is a lot of content on Netflix (Canada) that’s to my taste—television shows I never got to see before, obscure or weird movies, British stuff—but I have friends who dropped it after a month because the content wasn’t fresh enough for them (particularly the Canadian version of Netflix can be a little lean on new releases.) It helps to have a taste for B-movies, for example. What I don’t need from Netflix is every episode of Star Trek, because every version already airs endlessly on other channels.

What I don’t need for a monthly subscription from Oyster is classics I can find for free via multiple other channels. When I see, in sample images on the Oyster blog, the latest volume of Best American Short Stories, I’m intrigued. When I see Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London—a book I love dearly—I am less impressed.

——
*Futura (Kubrick’s favourite font) and Garamond especially.

“Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future”

Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland

When I read about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.
–Isaac Asimov

It’s hard for me not to have a negative reaction to the news that a “bookless library” has opened in San Antonio. Despite being something of a technophile, I have trouble reconciling the almost Platonic imagery in my head of endless rows and towers of leather and paper with a room full of screens.

I own an iPad, iPhone, desktop PC, PlayStation, Wii and two DVRs and should therefore be able to applaud the creativity of an underfunded public institution dealing with massive change. I should, but can’t quite manage to leap the emotional divide that exists for me between a cybercafé and a library.

Library is a word with resonance. Alexandria has a library. Niagara Falls has a cybercafé.

I grudgingly admire the attempt to create an enticing, physical, public space in the digital age, but it seems a little forced to organize that space around what are largely virtual tools. Wouldn’t this have been a better story if it had been about a library finding a creative way to reengage the public with the traditional forms of books? New gadgets hold a fascination for me personally, but the book has been a surprisingly resilient and adaptable technology since the 15th Century.

Paper books are still a thriving industry too. Just three of the top publishers in the world, Random House, Penguin Group and Simon & Schuster, have earned a combined revenue of over $2.8 billion in 2o13—digital sales still represent less than 25% of total sales at all three of these companies.

And you know what’s a cheap way for people to read who can’t afford gadgets? Books. Penguin Books—with their iconic and often beautiful covers—was founded on the idea of making literature accessible and easy for the common man.

Maybe I’m destined to become some kind of crank, rocking on a porch somewhere, moaning about the decline of civilization since the loss of the book, but I think there’s still an inherent value in the book as a physical object and in the printed word in general.

I would prefer to see contemporary libraries find a balanced point between free digital access (a worthy offering) and a collection—even a modest one—of real books. To reject printed books as completely as this library in San Antonio has done, smacks of a marketing ploy.