I often spend much of my time ranting about the unfortunate effects that television, internet and technology in general have on the modern man. I cannot help but acknowledge that Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 is one of the most influential novels I’ve read. Despite this, I also find myself distinctly remembering a very crucial episode of a television show that aired during my youth. The show was none other than Boy Meets World, and the small clip of the episode just so happens to be on YouTube (ironically, of course, much like the means of my communicating this to you.)
Mr. Feeny just about sums up the frustration of anyone who has ever taught high school. Here we are in one of the most advanced countries that has ever existed, with information at our fingertips, throwing the opportunities we’ve been given to the wind to “beat King Koopa.” (I, for the record, have.) It is somewhat similar to what CS Lewis calls “playing in mud puddles” because we have no idea what is meant by an offer to enjoy the sea. But then it isn’t at all. Because the tragedy we are facing in this country is not one in which people don’t know about the sea but that they refuse to go there. That is, the problem is not that students (and adults) can’t read, it is that they won’t. And if they continue to refuse, whatever skill they once had will eventually become dulled into obscurity. Like anything else in life, reading requires constant practice. And so when the students begin to stop reading, they start losing whatever skills they had and reading becomes a laborious chore.
I have ruminated nonstop about why students seem to randomly start hate reading (probably around the fifth grade). Of course, technology does play a factor. I can’t think of any movie off the top of my head that shows its main character do nothing but read. Some do promote reading, but generally we demand action in our entertainment which usually requires bad script writing and subconsciously telling the younger generation that the life you want is one in which you are the central actor. Reading, in our minds, isn’t action. It’s dull. Frankly, it’s not nearly egocentric enough to satisfy us. There’s far too much of us “putting ourselves into another man’s shoes.” And when you add in all of the other psychology (and Facebook no doubt) that promotes and fosters narcissism, we become disinterested in anything that doesn’t directly correlate to our lives. And with that we have just lost interest with probably 99% of our literary choices.
But it does go beyond technology. One reason is how we promote literacy. In the district in which I sub, they have these dreadful classes called “Reading Seminars.” In theory, it is a grand idea. The students all have their books, and depending on the teacher, they may be read to for part of the class or required to read for the entire period. This is a death knell to a book in my opinion.
First, if the student hates reading, it won’t do him any good to force him to read for a grade. Secondly, we are telling the student that reading (1) has only educational benefits and (2) has only temporary benefits. Both of these are false. When I was in school, I did algebra because that was required of me. It has no external benefit and, frankly, it never will. It is the same with this idea of the Reading Seminar only in that reading (in my very biased opinion) is exponentially more important than figuring out where Y’s X went. The average person does algebra for a couple of years and then forgets it forever, but everybody reads forever. Furthermore, the best writers you will meet will also be some of the best readers you meet. It is very difficult and nearly impossible to be a good writer if you refuse to read.
Apart from even the obvious professional benefits of being a good reader (and subsequently writer) are what I like to call the spiritual benefits. Obviously, no school is going to let students in on this secret. The magnitude of this surpasses all else of course. Reading fills our head with knowledge, directs our path with wisdom, and paints our black and white world in color. Poetry specifically does this, but even good narrative does this as well. For instance, I am in the beginning stages of Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit and as of this weekend, I will never again feel the same about a sunset or the howling winds at night specifically because the man went on for about three pages telling of the setting of the story — all in epic personification. If we are careful in our selection, reading will cause us to look at the drab, boring, ordinary things of this world as a wonderful drama being played out before us. The man who refuses to read fiction is in constant danger of having his imagination and wonder shrivel up inside of himself.
Lastly, I want to comment on the second point I previously made: that we are subconsciously telling students that reading only has temporary benefits when we grade it.* One of the foremost creeds I live by is that “the best tastes in life are acquired tastes.” Now, reading does certainly have immediate benefits, but we also have to acknowledge that a child can’t go to a book like he does the TV. He can’t expect to sit down, read for thirty minutes and have every loose end tied up in a neat little bow for him. He can’t even expect to be moved by his emotions every time he reads. He is conditioned to have his emotions moved because he listens to music, watches movies with epic scores (which I love), and is generally told what to think. But the book won’t do any of this for him. Reading a novel may be (I have not a clue) likened to asking a pretty girl to marry you. You will have all those immediate benefits, but thirty years down the road you will be surprised to find that the majority of the blessings happened later rather than sooner. And this is what life is really all about. Investment.
On this note, I would like to challenge anyone willing to be challenged to embrace your literacy. Don’t waste what you have been given in life. As Gandalf says, we are called to manage the time we’ve been given as well we can, and I believe our Lord said that to much that is given, much will be required. We are blind to how much we have, let us have our eyes opened and read a book.
I have listed here three articles on reading that I have found to be thoroughly enlightening:
CS Lewis’s article “On The Reading of Old Books”. For every book you read, read three old books to better enlighten your perspective and prejudices your own time period has on your thoughts. Read this with a “pencil in hand a pipe in your teeth.”
John Piper article “Teaching, Schooling, and Reading.” I was actually looking for a different article he wrote, but this one is pretty good. Piper is one pastor who is very concerned with how being a good, intelligent reader guides our spiritual life in the interpreting of scriptures. It is a very important aspect of our faith.
James Winter: “Imaginations Should be Exercised.” More dialogue on why reading fiction is beneficial to our spiritual life. Perhaps for every three books you read, one should be fiction or poetry.
*Here I hope will not be a confusion. It is not that I disagree with reading classes in general. In fact, I believe every Middle School should have a literature class as well as an English class. I had a reading class myself, and it was one of the most beneficial aspects of my education. Therefore, it is how the reading classes are done that I generally disagree with. Of course, many of these classes probably work just fine, but I am speaking in general terms, and, naturally, I offer no alternatives because I have none.