Two on Reading

The first one is from The Chronicle from a few weeks back arguing that we can’t (and oughtn’t try to) teach the love of reading (though you should know that that is a pretty narrow and borderline misleading summary of the article–there’s much more than that here) :

Rarely have young people been expected to have truly deep knowledge of particular texts. Instead, education, especially in its “liberal arts” embodiments, has been devoted to providing students with navigational tools—with enough knowledge to find their way through situations that they might confront later in life. (Even the old English public schools flogged their students through years of Latin and Greek not because Latin and Greek were intrinsically valuable, still less useful, but because the discipline of such study would have a salutary effect on young men’s characters. And these are the terms in which survivors of that system typically praise it.) This is one of the ways in which the artes liberales are supposed to be “liberal,” that is, “liberating”: They free you to make your own way through the challenges of life without requiring external props.

All this is to say that the idea that many teachers hold today, that one of the purposes of education is to teach students to love reading—or at least to appreciate and enjoy whole books—is largely alien to the history of education. And perhaps alien to the history of reading as well.

The other is from the NY Times Book Review on a new book by Binyavanga Wainaina, and it includes a link to his killer essay, “How to Write about Africa“:

Harried reader, I’ll save you precious time: skip this review and head directly to the bookstore for Binyavanga Wainaina’s stand-up-and-cheer coming-of-age memoir, “One Day I Will Write About This Place.” Although written by an East African and set in East and Southern Africa, Wainaina’s book is not just for Afrophiles or lovers of post­colonial literature. This is a book for anyone who still finds the nourishment of a well-­written tale preferable to the empty-­calorie jolt of a celebrity confessional or Swedish mystery.

Not that Wainaina is likely to judge anyone’s taste in books. In fact, at its heart, this is a story about how Wainaina was almost eaten alive by his addiction to reading anything available. “I am starting to read storybooks,” he says of his 11-year-old self, growing up in Nakuru, Kenya. “If words, in English, arranged on the page have the power to control my body in this world, this sound and language can close its folds, like a fan, and I will slide into its world, where things are arranged differently.”

One thought on “Two on Reading

  1. That first article struck a cord with me. In high school, I was never much of a reader; or rather, I read a lot, but almost exclusively fantasy novels and game books rather than the textbook assignments from class. By the time I graduated, I had no idea what it meant to be a scholar, and only had the flimsiest conception of what it meant to be a professor. I didn’t even know that there were such things as philosophy professors, and it would have surprised me to learn that someone could actually take a class in philosophy, let alone a variety of such classes.

    My saving grace was four years in the military, equipped with my ignorance of higher education’s reading culture, an enormous amount of time sitting around with nothing to do, and a copy of Plato’s ‘Republic.’ I never read it dutifully, and only ever read from curiosity and a compulsion that came from within. I took frequent and long breaks. But I had time to think about every inch of that book for two or three years, with little else to occupy my mind.

    I’m not saying this is the best of habits, but it certainly gave me a great appreciation and love for the wisdom in books, and how books are not simply something that I assimilate, but that set my mind to wandering and growing in new and unpredictable directions. I wonder how many people completely miss out on that sort of reading life, marching from one academic year to the next until it’s over.

    Nowadays, just as the article describes, I let myself get rushed and distracted by a bombardment of reading projects, and this is always accompanied by guilt for not reading more, and more quickly. I doubt I’ll ever be able to read like I did when I was younger, simply because I’m now too inundated with the academic culture: either my reading is work, and my reading must be industrious, or I fall short of the standards of a good academic. Either way, there is some guilt and some lack of fulfillment.

    I wonder what the mental life of our students are when they enter our halls. What was their reading culture like in high school? How often does it go totally unaddressed? How often, no matter how inviting, genuine, and helpful we are as teachers– how often do our assignments come to them as incompatible with their natural curiosity to learn?

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