Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, August 6, 2009

the value of reading?

Alex Rose isn’t so sure that it’s straightforward and intrinsic:

A few years ago, I found myself on a blind date with an English professor. At some point after the second drink, one of us mentioned a feature in the Times that day about a recent slew of steamy, pulpy young adult novels whose sudden popularity had incurred the wrath of both protective mothers and knuckle-rapping critics.

"But at least the kids are reading," said my date, raising her glass. "That's got to count for something."

Does it? . . .

The only conceivable value of trashy books is the dubious but not unthinkable possibility that they might go some of the way towards engendering in young people a love of reading as an end in-itself, which in turn might whet the appetite for better books. For many, that's the only way in. They'll read Sweet Valley High or Twilight at thirteen, lose their taste for it by fourteen and demand something richer and more challenging at sixteen. Or so the thinking goes.

If the argument applies to one form of entertainment, though, it should apply to all. Why is it that when kids become enraptured by some idiotic program, no one says, "well, at least they're watching TV?"


  • I've heard Alex's argument—Philip Pullman has made the same one in various places—and the anonymous English professor's argument (which I dubbed the Gateway drug argument) and tend to agree with the latter in part because that better represents my own trajectory, which goes from kids' books to loads of pulpy SF and fantasy to literature as a whole. Furthermore, I probably imbibed something useful from all that SF and fantasy (about plots, about how those works tend to function in a myth-critic way, and even vocabulary) even if I wasn't ready to dive into Shakespeare at the time.

  • Michael Straight said...

    Reading is a skill that improves as you use it. Watching TV, not so much.

  • Another post that puts me in the alternate universe.

    The last month of fifth grade--this spring--we found out our son has somehow learned to read without anyone realizing it.

    Honey, there's a difference between the value of reading and that of watching tv, and don't let anyone tell you there isn't.

  • (Our son is nonverbal.)

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    "Reading is a skill that improves as you use it. Watching TV, not so much."

    When I read that, I thought, "True" — but then again, maybe not. If you read progressively more complex and sophisticated material, you become a better reader. But what if you read nothing but Dr. Seuss books, forever? Would your reading skills improve?

  • Julana, I don't think Alex was suggesting that watching TV is as good a thing as reading — I don't believe he even raises that issue. He's just asking why we think it's good that a young person is reading regardless of *what* the young person is reading. And he's using the example of TV to make that question more pointed. And it's a good question, I think: is reading of *anything* better than reading *nothing*? I'm not convinced that it is. Need to think about it more.

  • Michael Straight said...

    "But what if you read nothing but Dr. Seuss books, forever? Would your reading skills improve?"

    I would think so. Not as much as if you went on to harder stuff, but I think someone who read Dr. Seuss every day would be a better reader than someone who didn't read at all.

    For most skills I can think of (music, cooking, drawing, riding a bike, making birdhouses), you get better--more efficient, less prone to mistakes, more graceful, more polished--even if you're only doing the same over and over with no increase of difficulty.

  • Whereas the absurd argument that no one improves reading through a singular diet of Dr. Seuss books might be insulting to most of us, I suspect there is a sizeable number of readers whose diet consists solely of comics and graphic novels, which being heavily laden with illustrations barely counts as reading. Then there is the mass of adults (and kids) who never read anything for pleasure, preferring instead to entertain themselves with other media. For them, a steady diet of trashy romance/adventure novels would be a marked step up from TV/movies/video.

  • I have often thought those hortatory library posters featuring a celebrity holding a book next to the word READ (http://www.alastore.ala.org/SearchResult.aspx?CategoryID=158) rather deficient for similar reasons. Why not READ WISELY or READ WELL?

    But of course that sort of exhortation might undermine our residual trust in humanistic endeavors like reading to substitute for virtue. Without a proper place in the ordering of loves, reading becomes one of Jonathan Swift's "mechanical operations of the spirit."

    "There is, or there was, an idea that reading in itself is a virtuous and holy deed. I can’t quite agree with this, because it seems to me that the mere fact of a man’s being fond of reading proves nothing one way or the other. He may be constitutionally lazy; or he may be overstrained, and so take refuge in a book to rest himself." (Rudyard Kipling, "The Uses of Reading")

  • I guess he's making an assumption the person has the ability to read, that he's dealing with a literate person.
    * * * * *
    The other night I was talking to a friend who tutors children with special needs. One of them had, that day, responded to a question with a sentence that contained a profanity. His mother would have been shocked he knew the word. I would give a lot for that sentence to come out of my son's mouth. But only once!
    Talking is always better than not talking, if one is unable to talk. Not so much, if one is able.

  • Julana Schutt said...

    There's an argument in favor of letting kids read what they want, mediocre as it may be, from Richard Allingham in _What Really Matters for Struggling Readers_? pgs. 78-81.

    Easy books reduce the cognitive workload, easing the acquisition of skills needed to read higher level material.

    Too bad, can't see it in Google Books.

  • A week ago, I saw this new edition of _Wuthering Heights_, obviously hoping to attract _Twilight_ readers: http://tinyurl.com/r9cxu9

    As a literary snob, I was at first appalled. Cynically, I expect it's an effort to make money, but it could be a real effort to help people actually make the transition to real literature, in which case it's probably worth the cringe factor. I don't think _Wuthering Heights_, however, despite it's prominence in the series, is a good book to make the jump.

  • Are you guys saying you can't watch TV and not have critical thinking? That something like "Deadwood" or "The Wire" can't affect one's ability to read body language, to understand politics?

    Saying that "Better Twilight than comic books" is the Intellect Police equivalent of planting evidence.

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