Thursday, December 30, 2010

Why We Read

There has recently been much discussion about Grant Wiggins’ proposal to ban fiction, which has, of course, got me thinking a lot about reading and fiction.

I had read (quickly) the original post by Grant Wiggins about banning fiction and had intended to return to it and read it more thoroughly but couldn’t find it again. Which, it turns out, is because Wiggins didn’t really mean it. (Note to aspiring satire writers: satire is a good way to make a point, but it’s not always as easy as The Onion makes it look)

His attempted point about needing to revisit the materials we use in the classroom is a good one, and one that Nicholas Provenzano makes far better than Wiggins did, and since I’d just be repeating everything he said, I’ll just tell you to go and read what he wrote.

But the other point--the one about students needing to be prepared for the mostly non-fiction reading they’ll be doing in the future--is the one that won’t stop rattling around my brain.

Reading and thinking about this issue I was reminded of a conversation I had with a colleague at the beginning of the year. She was returning Gayle Forman's amazing If I Stay, which she had checked out and read because it was on my summer reading list. I was excited to talk to someone new about what they'd thought of the book, so I asked her what she thought of the book. Her response (not completely verbatim):

"It was okay. The vocabulary wasn't very sophisticated."

I was floored. I just stared at her blankly for a moment and then said, "You and I read books for very different reasons."

'Cause seriously. I was so completely absorbed by If I Stay that it didn't even occur to me to pay attention to the vocabulary level. I was there for the story. I was so caught up in Mia’s decision that I completely failed to notice whether or not the words she was using would also appear on the SATs.

I’ve also had a teacher ask me if I could contact the editors of short story publications to ask them to use more standard grammar. I neglected to follow through on that request.

Reading fiction is about far more than learning new vocabulary and studying grammar in its natural habitat. One of the most critically important skills we develop by reading fiction is the ability to see and understand a world and viewpoint completely different from our own.

Reading fiction helps us develop our ability to empathize. Seriously, it's been studied (go read that article, right now). Being able to put yourself in another person's shoes is an invaluable skill for reading fiction, non-fiction, and, you know, interacting with the world at large.

This has been at the forefront of my mind as I've recently started reading Jason Ohler's new book, Digital Community, Digital Citizen. In the introduction he talks about helping students learn to balance the rights and responsibilities of interacting with people in a digital environment. Understanding your rights is relatively easy--you only have to understand your own perspective; but when you start talking about understanding responsibilities, you need to be able to understand the world from someone else’s perspective.

The concept of empathy is at the core of so much of what we, as librarians, are trying to teach. You want credit for the work that you do? Then give credit to others. Don't want to be bored to tears by a boring paper or presentation? The don't create a boring one yourself. Don't want to be harassed online? Don't want to be misled by false information? Want to be respected? You get the idea. It is hard to thoroughly grasp the underlying concepts that make these things more than just actions and turn them into attitudes unless you have developed an ability to empathize--particularly the ability to empathize with people completely unlike yourself.

You can't directly teach empathy. There's no way to say, "Look, this is how you empathize. Now empathize with problems 1-6 on page 43 for homework." What we can, as educators, do is to create an environment in which students are routinely exposed to views and lives that are completely foreign to them. That's a skill that they will need when reading non-fiction that discusses lives and experiences that are completely foreign to them.

Then there's this article, from a while ago, which I found both interesting and really, really obnoxious. First of all, could we please have an article about teens and reading that either a) mentions books other than Harry Potter and Twilight (I’m starting to get to that point with Hunger Games, too) or b) better yet, doesn't mention them at all. I know they are the "big titles", but teens read LOTS of other things, and any time I read an article about teens and reading that mentions only those two series I can't shank the feeling that the writer is less than well-informed about the real landscape of YA lit.

Things like this paragraph:
So they are in fact not about what is it to be an adolescent, but what it should be, since, perhaps unconsciously, adults want to instruct young people and guide them into adulthood. So images of adolescence in YA fiction are images of what adults want teenagers to believe. It’s a very powerful ideological tool.
make me so annoyed I cannot even articulately respond with anything beyond wondering if Maria Nikolajeva has read any YA lit, or if she was ever actually a teenager.

Though, in fairness, I will point out that she redeems herself significantly when asked what parents should do about teens reading dark literature. Specifically, "Nothing." :
So it is important to let young people be exposed to all kinds of literature and culture, dark and light, serious and entertaining; and it is always a good idea to talk to kids about what they read, watch or listen to.
Anyway, slightly ranty tangent aside, the major takeaway from that article (for me, anyway), is that what we read effects us. Which is both an excellent point and a major duh. Obviously what we read affects us--and it affects us differently at different ages, because we read it through the lens of different life experiences. I read The Great Gatsby in high school and HATED it. A lot. I re-read it at 23 because I was going to have to teach it and LOVED it. And understood why 16-year-old me thought it was awful; there was no way I could relate to that story in any meaningful way. Knowing that did not make it any easier to teach it to a room full of 16-year-olds (one of them, quite memorably, said the book made him want to forget how to read).

Anyway, yes. What we read affects us--good, bad, in between. It changes both how we see ourselves and how we see the world. This is true of both fiction and non-fiction (one of the reasons I read so many blogs by people in my field is that I love being able to learn from their experiences and see problems--and solutions--in a new light). I believe that I would not be as adept a reader of non-fiction without hours (and hours!) of fiction reading under my belt. Good fiction makes it easy to imagine yourself in someone else's place--a skill that is vital to effective reading of non-fiction, particularly if you want to learn anything from it.

And learning, really, is what it’s all about. And if we want to learn about people other than ourselves (and I don’t think anyone is arguing otherwise, even satirically), reading fiction is an indispensable part of the process.


  1. Hear Hear!!! Thank you ever so for this post!!! Wonderful, thought provoking and helping the rest of champion an argument that no doubt we are all tired of having!

    Beautiful! :)

  2. Great post, from another KM librarian :)

  3. Thank you! It is (obviously) a topic I'm pretty passionate about; it's wonderful to see it resonating with other people.