Reading is dead, long live reading

by Stephen Tall on July 23, 2006

The Telegraph today carries one of those traditional whither-Britain-we’re-all-doomed, Sunday state-of-the-nation stories: Reading is a closed book to today’s children:

Children spend less than an hour a day reading at school and many do not pick up a book at all during lessons, a study of reading habits has found.

I doff my cap to no-one in my desire for every single kid to discover, as I did aged six, the unconfined joy that becoming absorbed by a book which clutches you in its thrall can inspire. But let’s take a closer look at the Torygraph article:

The lack of time devoted to books at school, and the sorry state of many school libraries as revealed in a damning Ofsted report, in March may be among the reasons why many children have so little regard for reading.

Well, it may be – though as the survey shows 81% of kids spend up to an hour or more each day engaged in reading at school, I’m drawn to the attitude that home/parental attitudes are far more influential. A child who grows up in a house with no books is less likely to appreciate their value than one surrounded by literature (regardless of whether those books are Jackie Collins and Dan Brown, or Charles Dickens and the Encyclopaedia Britannica).

It’s just a little ironic to see the Torygraph instantly blame schools (and, by extension, the state) for this failure, and implicitly argue for greater state intervention to boost standards.

Many of the pupils surveyed were bemused by the question “Is reading your favourite activity?” Eighty-five per cent responded in the negative and cited watching television, playing computer games and socialising with friends as their main priorities.

Kids, eh… Well, what did the researchers expect? And what would they find if they asked the kids’ parents? – I bet boozing (or ‘socialising with friends’, as we would more euphemistically term it) would be higher up the list. To be honest, I’m quite surprised that up to 15% of those questioned appear to have answered positively that reading is their favourite hobby. I think I’d have said ‘playing football’ in my mis-spent youth.

A number of children thought Wuthering Heights was only a pop song by Kate Bush rather than a novel by Emily Brontë, and several others thought Bob Marley was the author of the work.

Hmmm. Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ was released in 1978, a full two decades before the youngest children in this survey were born. I sincerely doubt a few 10 year-olds spontaneously piped up, “Wuthering Heights – oh, I’ve heard of that one. Are you referring to Kate Bush’s tender re-working of that tale of windswept love and doomed romance on desolate moors, set to a gushing orchestration of strings and piano? It was a book as well, you say? Well, who would have thought?”

And as for the notion that any child has the faintest notion of who Bob Marley is… it says much about the Telegraph’s idea of which popular beat combo artistes are down wiv da kidz.

The American rap artist Eminem was named by some as the author of To Kill a Mocking Bird.

A much easier mistake to explain away – as the Telegraph notes, Eminem did release a song called ‘Mockingbird’, a tender rap in which Marshall Mathers explains to his little girl why her parents have split up (lyrics with which I guess many kids will closely identify):

We did not plan it to be this way, your mother and me,
But things have gotten so bad between us
I don’t see us ever being together ever again,
Like we used to be when we was teenagers.
But then of course everything always happens for a reason –
I guess it was never meant to be –
But it’s just something we have no control over, and that’s what destiny is.
But no more worries, rest your head and go to sleep.
Maybe one day we’ll wake up and this will all just be a dream.

The Telegraph continues:

… a number of girls said they read magazines, not books, and one 14-year-old listed the Radio Times among her favourite reads of the year. Other chosen works included The Exorcist, The Manchester United Miscellany and Roy Keane’s autobiography.

So what? At least they’re reading, so let’s not curl our lip at the content: Martin Amis devoured nothing but comic books as a child. (And let’s at least be grateful it was the Radio Times, not TV Quick.) Of course I hope these kids will graduate to books which stretch their minds further; but we’re hardly going to encourage them to do that if we make them think that ‘improving’ reading and ‘enjoyable’ reading are antithetical.

Lost in the Telegraph’s survey is any acceptance that the popular culture which envelopes today’s kids is vastly more intelligent than that which existed when I were a lad. Last year, the US author Steven Johnson wrote a terrific little book, ‘Everything Bad Is Good For You’, about which I wrote an article last year:

His thesis is straightforward: that what is making us smarter is precisely what we thought was making us dumber: popular culture. Mr Johnson examines two components, video games and television, and draws the same conclusions from his study of each – that society’s greater exposure to these cultural stimuli is ramping up our individual brainpower, both our intellectual and our emotional intelligence. He terms this counter-intuitive riff the ‘Sleeper Curve’, a hat-tip towards the famous Woody Allen joke from his mock sci-fi film where a team of scientists from 2029 are astounded that 20th-century society failed to grasp the nutritional merits of cream pies and hot fudge.

Reading is not a rival to pop culture: it is integral to it.