The vanishing art of reading
In a recent conversation with a young friend I made a comment about the ‘art’ of reading and my friend scoffed. He felt there was no art to reading and it required no particular talent – it was simply decoding text and once you knew how to do it all readers were equal. But I believe that just as musicians become more skilled through practice and commitment to their art, so do readers. Just because you’ve mastered chopsticks, doesn’t mean you can play Rachmaninov. There is no plateau, there is always more to know, more to understand.
I am still learning to improve my skills as a reader, despite the fact I have read thousands of books in myriad genres. I have a number of books on my shelves on ‘how to read a book’. Not all of them are great reads but many of them have added to my understanding of what it means to really get the most out of my reading. Reading widely requires both energy and patience. Sometimes it requires the same sort of compassion that you must have when listening to someone speak with a very heavy accent. You have to let your mind attune to the rhythms of the language before you can fully grasp what the speaker is trying to communicate. It’s a skill that is particularly important to develop when reading work written in other eras, works in translation or books from other cultures.
Last month I attended the AATE/ALEA conference in Hobart, Tasmania where Professor Barry McGaw from the University of Melbourne presented a fascinating paper on Australian reading standards. He is also the Chair of the National Curriculum Board so, ostensibly, he was discussing the outline of the plans for the new curriculum but he also talked about where Australia fits in the OECD in terms of literacy. Apparently, Australia’s standards of literacy have been slipping for the last decade but, surprisingly, it’s not because there are more illiterate students but because our top readers, the students scoring at the highest end of the scale for comprehension and language skill aren’t attaining the scores they used to a decade ago. The slippage in standards is amongst the talented readers.
Professor McGaw explained it wasn’t clear why the best readers have fallen in their standards but he noted that the countries that have attained the greatest improvement in literacy skills, like Korea, have focussed not only on working with readers who are struggling with literacy but have extended their top-end readers as well. There is always more to learn about reading.
You can download Professor McGaw’s materials from the conference website. His power point presentation incorporating the graphs he used to illustrate the changes in reading standards are compelling.
I hate snobbery about literature – there is a place for every kind of book. But I’m not a fan of the pervasive idea that simply being able to read a book is enough. All books are NOT of equal merit. Good books are not always easy. Just because they are difficult doesn’t mean they are not well written or not worth reading. I’ve noticed a certain smugness among some readers who feel if they can knock over a book like ‘Twilight’ or one of the Harry Potter titles in a weekend then they have learned all there is to know about reading. It’s like assuming that because you can scoff a bowl of ice-cream, you are a master gourmet. Some books are more like artichokes – you have to peel back the layers and savour each mouthful.
Sometimes I worry that the sheer volume of easy-to-read novels that are available to young readers is deterring them from making an effort to wrestle with more difficult books. Reading widely requires support from parents, librarians, booksellers, teachers, friends and the wider community. And it also requires readers to take reading seriously, to celebrate all the diverse voices of the literary world, and to develop the reading skill and stamina to persevere with complex stories and difficult prose.