Saturday, January 12, 2008

Read as if your life depended on it!

In "Don't just read for fun", Danny Heitman comments on the latest NEA report about declining rates of reading. He cautions against the simple approach of making reading fun so that kids will choose to read more.

Since Cerf's declaration that it's fun to read, we've hung "Reading is Fun" banners in libraries and classrooms and promoted reading fun on educational television. The idea, perfectly well meaning, is to hook children on a lifelong skill without letting them know they're being taught.

But in making this bargain, perhaps we've inadvertently conditioned new generations of Americans to think of reading as a literary amusement park, full of thrills, chills, and a few pleasant gags that indulge us without asking anything in return.

It may be that fewer young Americans today read in their spare time because the reading-is-fun philosophy has taught them to regard books as just another species of popular entertainment, blithely interchangeable with the latest sitcom or movie blockbuster. It's a comparison in which the quieter medium of literature seems ill suited to compete.

Heitman goes on to contrast "reading is fun" with "reading can be much more" by reminding us about a scene in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird:

In Harper Lee's famous novel, small-town lawyer Atticus Finch defends a black man wrongly accused of rape in Depression-era Alabama. In a sentence meant to deride her father's wallflower personality, Finch's daughter flatly observes: "He sat in his livingroom and read."

But what we slowly discover is that Finch's reading isn't just passive play, but a vital wellspring.

As he waits for an inevitable confrontation with a gang of vigilantes, Finch reads in the dark, lonely night by the light of a single bulb.

Struggling against a town that despises his principles, Finch routinely reads to widen his worldview and deepen his soul. He is reading, in a very real way, as if his life depends on it.

That sense of daring and risk, of deep emotional and spiritual discovery, is what gets lost when we think of books only as avenues to pleasure. As the NEA report makes clear, reading can also be a source of civic and social renewal.

The video trailer for the film version of "To Kill a Mockingbird" does not include that scene but it does implicitly convey the civic and social impact that books and their film adaptations can have on a nation learning to live up to its ideals in the 1960s.

Lee's novel and the film explicitly address the role of reading as if your life depended on it. Jamie Wheeler explains the role of reading and its relationship to more formal learning in a response to the question "What makes Atticus Finch a great father?" at

One of the reasons Atticus is a great father, in my opinion, is the way he treats his children like reasonable human beings. For instance, when Scout balks at going to school, fearing that her beloved reading time with her father will be pushed out due to lack of time.

Atticus, in his lawyerly, loving way makes a deal with her. A compromise:

"Do you know what a compromise is?" he asked.

"Bending the law?"

"No, an agreement reached by mutual concessions. It works this way," he said. "if you'll concede the necessity of going to school, we'll go on reading every night just as we always have. Is it a bargain?"

Kate or I read to Sarah and Rosa for 20 minutes or more nearly every night until well after they could read well for themselves. I even remember lines from some of those books- "Big A, little a, what begins with A? Aunt Annie's alligator ... I do! I'm a Zizzer Zazzer Zuzz as you can plainly see." (Dr. Suess' ABC) Some phrases from those books have become literary allusions for our family life- "What? Forget? No, I never forget!" (Rice, E. Sam who never forgets)

We may have started this practice because we thought it would help them but now I know that it helped me as well. What can we do to help more families make this bargain?

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