Friday, April 26, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Is Reading Aflame in Our Society by Joe Asnault

Is Reading Aflame in Our Society
Joe Asnault

Burning of Kopimi (Copy Me) Books in Sweden
PHOTO: mikael altemark

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Empirical

I feel like a seasoned veteran. Eighteen years on the job as a junior high and high school English teacher. I feel like I’m finally hitting my stride, and then a colleague of mine handed me Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide. The last sentence stuck me, like Jack’s spear into the pigs in Lord of the Flies: “We need to find this courage. Today. Nothing less than a generation of readers hangs in the balance.” This final sentence can be better understood by understanding Gallagher’s main premise and the title of his book. Readicide is a new word which Gallagher feels should be in the dictionary. “Readicide: noun, the systematic killing of the love of reading often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.” Gallagher–a high school English teacher–recognizes the problem. His book and his other writings also offer viable solutions. Yet I had to ask myself: Am I contributing to this “readicide” through my teaching practices? Am I contributing to the conscious choice of teens and future adults to not read? I felt sick to my stomach and bizarrely it was a good feeling; a harbinger of change and of awareness that in our world now, deep, intellectual reading is on the decline, and I can convert my painful realization into impetus for change.

Reading Readicide has done exactly what reading is supposed to do to humanity: provide the potential for individual transformation. Becoming deeply engrossed in a book–fiction or non-fiction–allows us to experience existence in familiar or foreign ways. Upon closing the book with the last words lingering in our minds, a seed can be planted about the way we view our world, ourselves, or our closest friends and family. Better yet, as in my case, roots which are deeply embedded, can be ripped up. The metaphorical safe can fall on our heads and knock us out completely. In our reawakening, we see ourselves and our world in a different light.

PHOTO: Erich Ferdinand

This safe fell square on Guy Montag, the main character in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. He is a fireman and his job exists to not put fires out, but to start them. His quarry: books. In his society, people have made a conscious choice to slowly but surely remove books from existence. It was no government censorship. It was no decree handed down by a ruthless dictator. It was society’s overall choice as people began opting not for long pieces of literature, but as Bradbury states, for “classics cut to fit fifteen minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten or twelve-line dictionary resume.” Sound like blogs, twitter, or Spark Notes? People began settling for less and less. Forget reading Great Expectations. Instead, read it as a twelve-line plot summary in the dictionary. As Montag hosed houses with kerosene that had books and people in them, he became curious and started slipping books into his fireproof jacket and stashing them in his house. Upon reading and seeing the quality of the words, he transformed. He vowed to keep books alive in their tangible forms and even began to memorize them so they could be transcribed back into existence.

In my current existence as a high school English teacher, I am witnessing a slow cultural shift in the way some teens view reading. The desire to have the written page in hand is waning, and I must–as Gallagher points out at the end of Readicide and as Guy Montag does at the end of Fahrenheit 451–gather courage and wisdom to instill in the 160 or so students I see daily that reading exists as a foundation for the success of humanity.

Some of my colleagues and I will sit and ponder the future existence of reading in its varying forms in our world because we know it is in danger right now. “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence” is the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2007 extensive report on the status of reading in America. It echoes one of Gallagher’s premises regarding how schools are aiding and abetting teens’ dislike for reading. This occurs through breaking down literature into beaten-to-death analysis. One statistic shows the percentage of students aged nine, thirteen, and seventeen by frequency of “reading for fun.” These statistics exist for 1984, 1999, and 2004. Not surprisingly, in the nine-year-old group those who claimed to read “almost every day” were consistent: 1984 (53%), 1999 (54%), and 2004 (54%). Conversely, here are the seventeen-year-old numbers who claimed to “read almost every day”: 1984 (31%), 1999 (25%), and 2004 (22%).

I cringe as I turn and stare at myself in the mirror. Several years ago for just about every reading assignment I gave to students, I felt I had to hold them accountable in my way: a twofold reading quiz the next day to prove students had completed the reading and to show some sort of deeper level of understanding of the text. This is a strategy used by many in the trade, and, yes, it keeps kids reading and writing, but not for what they wanted to read. Perhaps nine-year-olds are not yet asked to read to discuss complex character motivations, but instead are still reading simply because it’s cool, and unburdened by academic vocabulary like symbol and tone–concepts which are notable on the multiple-choice standardized tests the state and federal government mandate we administer.

Let’s flip a few more pages into Fahrenheit 451. Montag’s wife despised books, not only because they were illegal and she could be burned–by her own husband–if she was found with them, but because she could not understand why anyone, anytime, would ever want to bother reading a book when there was such “quality” TV on in her “parlor” (three massive walls of flat screen TV). Simply imagine TV more mindless and asinine than our current reality TV shows. When Montag pulls a bunch of his “contraband” (books) out of an air conditioning vent in the ceiling that he has been stashing over time to show her and to read together, she can’t handle the text, and begins to mock Montag. Bradbury narrates: “Mildred kicked a book. Mildred then states: ‘Books aren’t people. You read and I look all around, but there isn’t anybody!’ Mildred continues on to say, ‘My family is people. They tell me things: I laugh, they laugh, and the colors!’” The scary part here is she is not referring to Montag as her family. Here she is referring to her parlor walls and the petty, senseless shows she watches day in and day out. Her brain desires not the world of words and characters of Twain, Shakespeare, or Frost, even though it’s exactly what she needs. She only wants the visual candy that her parlor walls can provide for her. She only wants the contrived and shallow dramas offered–think Jersey Shore, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and Survivor. She wants no part in thinking. Yet Montag gets it. For some reason, something for him clicked. He realizes that words in books, characters, and descriptions can make us rich beyond all imagination. He doesn’t have to ask “Why Read?” like Mildred does.

Another colleague handed me Mark Edmundson’s book Why Read? To answer the question posed in his title is difficult. Part of me wants to respond like a nine-year-old might: “Because it’s cool.” Yet ever since my mom and dad fed me Stephen King’s The Stand in 8th grade, I have never, ever been without a pleasure-reading book. It’s the book that occupies the floor in the twelve-inch space between the edge of my bed and the wall. It’s the ritual of propping my pillows up when I go to bed, knowing there will be no distractions as my eyes scan the lines. It’s waking up at two a.m. with the book splayed out in front of me, or on my face. Reading’s essence is not only an intellectual and emotional experience, it’s a physical one as well: the turning of the pages, the smell of my copy of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which I have had since college and have read at least four times now.

Yet Edmundson’s reasoning behind why reading is so important is much deeper and philosophical than my mundane explanation. One that sticks out is that he writes: “Education and literature is a process of enlargement, in which we move from the center of our being off into progressively more expansive ways of life. This is represented with circles that emanate from a pebble tossed into a pond.” This is the beauty of what reading can do for us. It places us at the center, and gives us the space to ingest the words of an author, to expand our circle of influence and understanding of the everyday world. Readers can see themselves in the characters authors create and it’s not just the best we see. It’s sometimes the worst, and this can be most enlightening. I turned back to my mirror and asked, “How will you explain this concept to your 10th graders about why it’s important to read when they can expand their circle of influence by having 3,000 friends on Facebook?”

My colleagues and I lament at what we have to compete with, but we endure. We invite students to read literature: from Fahrenheit 451 to Animal Farm to Great Expectations; from Macbeth to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Ender’s Game. Yet surreptitiously tucked into a student’s sweatshirt pocket as the bell rings is a smart phone, with six text messages–poorly written for that matter–along with seventeen new posts from friends on Facebook, 43,000 songs stashed on a server somewhere in cyberspace, and apps that vary from practical to downright idiotic. And they’re not even home yet. Their gaming consoles await. According to the LA Times, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3, a first-person war shoot ‘em up game, chachinged up over one billion dollars in sales just sixteen days after its release. And kids can play these games on the new almighty flat screen TVs which are so much bigger and so much more beautiful, clearer, and louder.

To Read or Not To Read also cites how many hours and minutes are spent per day watching TV compared to reading. The 15 to 24 year old age group on weekdays watched around one hour and fifty-seven minutes of TV. Guess how many minutes were spent reading for pleasure: seven. There is also data regarding what percentage of spending dollars an average household forks out for reading materials and for TV/Audio Equipment. Spending on reading materials has dropped five percentage points between 1995 and 2005. Not surprisingly, spending on TV/Audio Equipment has risen about four percentage points between 1995 and 2005. The fire is kindling. Our instant gratification, visual culture started it. One can hope that it does not consume our society completely where we become similar to Mildred in Fahrenheit 451.

My stare into the mirror has now dried my eyes out, and as an English teacher, I must be a strong model for why we read for pleasure. I turn my gaze back to Edmundson who iterates: “I ask students to find themselves, or to discover what is unknown in themselves, among the great characters in literature.” For students to truly connect to what we are reading, it must be made a personal endeavor where they must figure out, on their own, why the novels we read are important today. Instead of spewing questions to thirty five or so sophomores, and getting responses from those few who read, my colleagues and I decided it was time to place more responsibility on the students to discover the “unknown in themselves.” Through this approach, students can begin reading with their own growth in mind, rather than the growth of a standardized test score. This takes a certain element of courage to implement pedagogical change and to resist the pressure of state and federal entities to “teach to” the shallow standardized tests.

Ultimately, this reading for pleasure can support our society by encouraging strong citizens and strong workers. Employers want people who can read, and read well. They want people who can interpret text and communicate effectively, as this is the basis for most human discourse at the workplace. The NEA report cites reading skills rated as “very important” by employers. It is broken down into education levels: high school graduates, two-year college graduates, and four-year college graduates. 63% of employers ranked reading comprehension as very important for high school graduates, 72% for two-year college grads, and 90% for four-year college grads.

Thank goodness for my colleagues who have fed me with some of the readings mentioned here. They have provided me with a rude awakening, one that I know can make me better in what I do, and therefore better for my students and their experiences in my classroom. I turn again to Edmundson: “Literature can help us understand: What use will you make of this world? What might it make of you? How do you intend to live?” I intend to live with book in hand knowing that in every reading, there might be some idea, some concept, some revelation that can only serve to send me further and further out into the expansive circles rippling through the pond.

At the end of Fahrenheit 451, the city Guy Montag lived in was obliterated by an atomic bomb. He and several others were on the outskirts and survived. In a way, Montag and his passionate group of book lovers and savers were lucky. With their society literally reduced to ash, they were left with a relatively clean slate to begin anew. To spread the quality of the written word and to hopefully see the love for deep reading rekindle. We may not be so lucky.

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