Upon recovering from the initial post-term stupor, the question of how to, if not productively then at least enjoyably, fill the 5 week Easter expanse of time inevitably arises. After the normal glut of reality TV and the novelty sleep have gotten old, most of us start looking for something a bit more engaging.
Once for me, the onset of the holidays would have unquestionably meant reading a new book, unconnected to any of my school subjects, and creating and exploring a new world to replace the temporarily-paused world of school. Reading something new was hugely entertaining, enriching, and strangely exhilarating because, although it initially felt like learning, I knew I was reading for fun. Reading in the holidays brought relief and escape from routine, unparalleled variety, and a renewed sense of perspective on school and life..
However, now, the first books that spring to mind during the vac are books for my course – reading has become the reading list. While they are full of incredible literature, the selection of seventeenth-century Spanish sonnets and sixteenth century (and borderline incomprehensible) French satirical prose isn’t exactly inspirational. Uninspiring is unfair – these are canonical works – but all things in moderation. In them, however edifying or perfectly metered they may be, will not be found the whimsy of Terry Pratchett, the suspense of Suzanne Collins or the intricacy, nuance and complete believability of Ian McEwan’s fictional worlds.
Even children’s writing considered somewhat hackneyed or simplistic can unlock treasure troves of imaginative opportunities for both children and adults. Jacqueline Wilson and Anthony Horrowitz have created characters and worlds that have entertained and educated children for decades on issues as diverse as foster care to international relations. I’m not putting down high literature – it’s obviously fantastic and an indispensable part of human culture – but I feel, especially at Oxford, there can be tendency to view reading material primarily in terms of its utility to our course.
Sometimes we need to be less prescriptive in our leisure reading, and go simply for what we think we will enjoy. It’s better to read and enjoy ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ then to struggle wincingly through ‘Crime and Punishment’ – as Mark Twain once said, a ‘Classic’ “is a book which people praise and don’t read.” Conversely, plenty of ‘literary fiction’ is perfectly accessible and inherently readable – John Irving, Fitzgerald and George Orwell are great first stops. At the end of the day, not everything we read has to be respectable and worthy; all has its place in the nebulous mosaic of literature.
What’s most important is to actually read. In the 21st century, reading for pleasure is under threat. Whilst at university reading has acquired a somewhat oppressive and funless functionality, elsewhere, increasingly and arguably more seriously, it is being seen as redundant. With our hectic, technology driven lives, reading fluctuates between being seen as decadent and irrelevant. At worst, traditional reading (with actual books) has become boring.
The benefits of literacy for society are numerous and well known, and reading for pleasure carries further huge benefits, highlighted by organisations like The Reading Agency. Fiction helps us to empathise, sympathise and look beyond the confines of our own lives, whilst non-fiction encourages us to hypothesise, challenge and engage more critically with the world around us. We need to protect and promote reading as much as we can, among children and adults alike, and something in the way we approach reading in our school needs to change. Despite reading for pleasure playing a greater role in determining a child’s cognitive determinant than their parents’ level of education, the Reading Agency point out that “only 40% of England’s ten year olds have a positive attitude to reading”.
I feel, at secondary level at least, it relates back to the all important issue of offering a mix of the classics and what children actually want to read, though efforts need to also be made beyond the classroom. Measures such as the outrageous banning of books in prisons, and the extent to which many libraries, recently described as “the gates to the future” by author Neil Gaiman, are facing closure or cuts, are stinging indictments of the approach of our society to reading, including reading for pleasure. If we are to protect books, we must protect the general public’s source of literature.
However, we must also recognise that technology is drastically changing the way we read. Despite the obvious practical benefits of e-Readers, something about them doesn’t feel quite right to me, and I feel uneasy about the quantification, the commoditizing and the depersonalisation that electronic devices herald for reading. The intimate connection with the book, and details like the plot, characters and emotions evoked, are diluted and distanced from the reader. You can’t fray, tea-stain or bend the corners of a Kindle (or it’s certainly inadvisable), and features which show you how far you are from the end turn your book into a chore, and the book into something to be rushed through.
This may seem petty, but I think the importance of each reader’s relationship to a specific book should not be underestimated. Connections build up as books are borrowed, lent, and passed down. The wonders of marginalia for example, at times useful, at others just very funny, would be a sad thing loses to the digitisation of the written word. The standardisation of books brought about by e-Readers, which package all books into the same format and font already, in my opinion, reduces their potential for sparking the imagination.
Recently however, a far more insidious trend than the Kindle is emerging. Software like Spreeder rush through a text at over 300 words per minute, reducing reading time and purportedly improving understanding by ‘silencing subvocalisation’ (the voice inside your head which speaks what you’re reading). The very word ‘silencing’ sums up what I think such devices would mean for the creative and imaginative potential of reading. The inner voice is so vital for reading – it brings different characters and description to life, giving the words on the page different tones, moods and sounds. To silence it would render any book sad and two dimensional, even if you could better ‘understand’ or remember the details. There would be no time for ambiguity, ambivalence or multiple interpretations. Even in cases of reading for practical purposes such as instruction manuals or scientific textbooks, such gadgets don’t sound like a particularly good idea. I wouldn’t want my surgeon or a pilot to have just casually ‘spread’ through the chapter on open heart surgery or emergency landings.
Ideas like Spreeder tie into the social-media driven phenomenon for quantity over quality in terms of information. While Twitter and Facebook have done amazing things socially and politically, I believe they have massively affected the way we view language and reading. Social media compresses language to a bare minimum. The majority of posts or tweets are snippets of incoherent narrative which are devoid of long term significance – the opposite of a plot in a story, or an argument in an essay or textbook. Although undeniably useful in terms of relaying information quickly, and mobilising social forces, such use of language should work in tandem with longer, more thoughtful pieces of writing; the blog for example.
As well as social media and e-Readers, reading is now in competition with a plethora of entertainment options; TV, film, video gaming and more. All of these, while not necessarily mindless or uncreative, usually lead to quicker, more straightforward gratification, but this more instant satisfaction doesn’t stick with you or resonate in quite the same way, or for as long, as a great book. As with striking a balance between ‘the classics’ and popular fiction, I think in terms of reading versus other forms of media, we can, and ought, to have the best of both.
Whilst the reading list is inevitable and important, and technological advances have sped up and slimmed down the reading process, don’t forget that reading, should sometimes be for fun and done the old fashioned way. As American aphorist and writer Mason Cooley once said: “Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.” It is the way that reading can do this, for anyone, anywhere, and at any time, that makes it so important.
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