Why Children Shouldn’t Read

I love this excerpt, published in today’s Globe and Mail, from children’s author Susan Juby’s new memoir, Nice Recovery.  This book has gone straight to my list of “what to read next,” and it may be a contender for the reading list for next fall’s personal narrative course.  In it, Juby discusses her struggle, beginning at the age of 13, with alcoholism.  These paragraphs summarize her  experience with being a child reader, and resonate uncannily with my own.

…it may have been a mistake to use books as a guide to life.  This is because books misled me about a few things.  Thanks to warm-hearted stories like Anne of Green Gables, I expected to encounter kindred spirits on every corner, as well as gruff but caring old people…  Books hoodwinked me into believing a set of lies about what was and was not important in life.  In books…having a good vocabulary was crucially important.  When I went to school it turned out to be a serious liability.  In books a lack of concern about clothes and personal appearance showed solid character.  In school such unconcern spelled social disaster.  In books knowing a lot about a lot of things…was admirable and likely to be rewarded.  At school it pretty much guaranteed that everyone would think you were a show-off and a bore and would shun you.  In books people were mostly nice, and the ones who weren’t nice were easy to spot.  In school villains were everywhere and they were well disguised.

In all this talk about why it is important for young people to read literature, this aspect – a very real one – is often overlooked, and I’ve been struggling to put words to it in order to introduce it into the conversation.  When you are young, being a reader can really mess up your relationship with the world around you.  Is it any wonder, then, that it’s difficult to convince people in their late teens that reading is a good way to spend their time?

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5 responses

  1. Of course, this isn’t specific to books, as other ways to imagine often have similar effects.
    There’s a broader category of problems associated with the intellectual life of a young bookworm. The social exclusion many of us have felt isn’t simply a matter of being misunderstood or of “living in another world.” It’s a complex set of social and cognitive processes through which we constructed rather unusual selves.
    Our lives are rich but quite different from that of “other kids.” Like the music-playing child who spends hours every day practicing scales, our experiences are selected out of a much broader range of possibilities. Unlike most young children practicing scales, however, our selection of bookreading as a primary activity was our own choice. Allegedly.
    Like Amélie Poulain, many of us had difficulties connecting with others, perhaps blaming them for not fitting tightly in the roles we wanted them to play. Some of us find our match but may still remain in exile, in our own society.
    Altogether, our bookreading habits has taken part in the shaping of many aspects in our lives.

    Once we become adults, some of us bloom into social animals of the intellectual world. Others (or some of the same people) try to transform children into copies of ourselves. Unsurprising, but potentially inappropriate. To a large part, those formal “liberal” education systems which are so prominent in different parts of the World, are based on this very idea that children should become the kind of adults we bookworms have become. It’s especially clear in universities but clear symptoms of the same affliction are evident in primary education.
    Where reading is imposed.

    There is something troubling about imposed reading. When I was a child, I read continuously and with delight a wide range of books in which I found solace and edification. But I was also forced to read specific books at specific times. With very few exceptions, these books have left no trace of pleasure in my memory. Books I had to read left a sour taste, like that music I forced to hear, Books I chose to read, on my own, are as much a part of my daily life as songs by Brassens and Ferrat.
    Of course, part of the problem is the cookie-cutter approach to “education.” But another part has to do specifically with books. To fully appreciate a book, one needs to invest a part of her-/himself. Same thing with music (of any kind). The problem is compounded with books because of length. It usually takes most people more time to read an average book than to listen to attend a Rock concert or listen to an opera. And despite Bakhtin’s focus on polyphony, books come through a very limited number of voices, with very limited occasions for continuous interactions. Unlike a blogpost, a joke, a personal experience narrative, or a performed poem, a book forces us in a rather rigid structure. The “positive” effect is that we get to focus our creativity in certain set modes. We tend to perceive this focus as giving free reign to our imagination even though it mostly works through selection. The issue with this is that it may not be the most effective strategy in terms of the social construction of knowledge.

    • Alexandre:
      You have raised some interesting points here, and many of them connect with the primary question upon which all of my recent blog posts have been based: why should the study of literature be mandatory in school? And the secondary questions: It is possible to teach a love of reading through teaching English within an educational framework? If not, what is the study of literature for? Is it useless – or, to put it differently, can the same skills be taught through different means? Should we stop requiring students to study literature? And so forth.

      You say “The “positive” effect is that we get to focus our creativity in certain set modes. We tend to perceive this focus as giving free reign to our imagination even though it mostly works through selection.” I would suggest that another “positive” effect has nothing to do with our creativity or the “free reign” of our imagination; it has to do with the obligation to direct our imagination toward the understanding of someone else’s interior life, giving us the opportunity to focus on something other than ourselves and our own “creativity.”

  2. Siobhan:
    I appreciate (in both meanings of that word) your willingness to discuss those issues. Too frequently, the “debate” over the value of book-based literature is one-sided. Since many people about whom I care think of literature as an unquestionable “Good Thing(tm)” and as I’m currently quite vocal in getting people to “think beyond books,” your series of blogposts has provided a lot of food for my thoughts.

    You recently posted a link to a discussion thread at “Free Thought Forum” about reasons to study literature. As an ethnographer, it mostly resonated as a set of reasons to use ethnographic modes of enquiry. Getting into people’s subjectivities, merging horizons, and undertaking the full range of intersubjective experience is what ethnography “is all about.”

    Here’s what we do, tell me if it’s that different from literature folks do:
    * We directly experience “other cultures and beliefs”;
    * We revel in “ambiguities in meaning”
    * We cherish human diversity in all its forms (linguistic, temporal, biological, and sociocultural);
    * We use “individual bias” as both an angle and an object;
    * We provide alternatives to “accepted knowledge”;
    * We reveal the contributions of any creative endeavour to society (from oral literature and music to mathematics, religions, and folk taxonomies);
    * We debate ethical complexities;
    * We put language as a focal point of a broad system (including cognition, social dynamics, and even biological adaptation);
    * We explore different varieties of language (without assuming we can “master” any of them);
    * We emphasize the quotidian over the extraordinary;
    * We refrain from making value judgements yet strive to understand others’ judgements;
    * We learn to confront our interpretations with not only the fabric of reality but others’ interpretations;
    * We contextualize our empathy for “those unlike us”;
    * We include items from a large variety of codes in our “vocabularies”;
    * And we consider gaining “insight” to be our main goal.

    The reason I provide this list isn’t really to compare literary fields with ethnographic disciplines. It is simply a way to break out of the reified construction which puts literature as the exclusive centre for these processes. True, literature does all of this and then more. But the fact that all of this may be done without use of book-based literature might impress upon us the idea that (as some colleagues have said in reply to my tweet on this discussion thread), this is “simply” about the values we put in a “liberal education.”
    Having been brought up in a social context which does emphasize this “liberal education” very directly (as a Québécois of Swiss origins), it’s difficult for me not to perceive these values as “fundamental.” The problem with this, though, is that these values aren’t truly as “universal” as those brought up in the industrialized “Global North” like to say.

    It is, again, remarkable that you would be willing to question some assumptions about the effects of studying (English) literature. It makes much less provocative my claim that, “no, we can’t teach a love of reading” as love cannot be taught. It also pushes me to say that the study of literature is far from useless as it obviously contributes to this wonderful liberal education system of which we are such proud representatives and advocates as teachers in Quebec’s post-secondary education.

    Good job!

    • Alexandre:
      Obviously, it is impossible for me to reply to all of the points you raise here, with the attention they deserve, in the comments section of a post. However, I will continue to ponder these points and perhaps to address them in future posts. Thank you for your contribution!

  3. Books aren’t necessarily for life lessons. They are a means of escapism. And not all books try to show the world in a positive way and make everything rose tinted.

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