books on books, part 3: reading matters: what the research reveals about reading, libraries and community

Nobody reads anymore, or nobody reads anything worth reading.

At least that's what we're supposed to believe. These days everyone is too busy playing video games, watching YouTube and texting. Before that, everyone was too busy listening to loud music that corrupted their morals. Or was it watching TV that rotted their brains? One hundred years before that, the same moral degeneration took place in music halls and pool halls. And of course, when "they" do read - they being other people, for what "we" read is vastly superior - they read vampire stories or Harlequin romances or books recommended by - gasp! - a celebrity talk-show host. Oh, the humanity.

The chicken-little view of The Decline of Culture is as old as culture itself. In the literature of every era, you can find a shelf full of cultural critics wringing their hands over the sorry state of literacy today, blaming technology, popular music, feminism, liberalism, alcohol, immigrants, what have you.

But are people actually reading less than they used to? Who reads and what is being read? Why do people choose to read or not read? What might encourage people to read more? I just finished reading a wonderful book that seeks to answer these questions.

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This is the third installment of my "what i'm reading" series of books on books or reading about reading. In part 1, I wrote about The Case for Books, by Robert Darnton. In part 2, I looked at Contested Will, by James Shapiro. In this post, I tackle Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries and Community by Catherine Sheldrick Ross, Lynne McKechnie and Paulette M. Rothbauer.

Last term, I took my required Introduction to Reference course, and I loved it! Reference seems to me the heart of librarianship, the irreplaceable connection between library users and library resources. Within Reference, there was a unit called "Readers' Advisory", which is the library term for librarians helping readers find books for pleasure reading. This got me super excited. Helping people find a good book - what an awesome job! I realized that I do readers' advisory all the time on a personal, informal basis, matching books to people. Professional readers' advisory is about matching books you have not read with people you don't know. This is what I want to do!

As part of this unit, we read "Finding Without Seeking", in which Ross reports on her research into heavy readers: why people read, how they feel about reading, what they derive from it. I absolutely loved this article, and shared it with a few people in my life who are also voracious readers and serious lovers of books. It must be a good sign that I was moved enough to learn more.

Although the intended audience for Reading Matters is librarians and library students, I'm sure others who love reading and literacy would find it fascinating. The authors have studied an enormous body of research, and straightforwardly present the most important findings, building a picture of reading in our society. It's written in plain, non-jargony language, and organized so that any chapter can be read as a stand-alone. Excerpts from in-depth interviews with readers are interspersed throughout, and each chapter ends with "What Librarians Can Do" and/or "What Parents Can Do".

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The first part of the book, "The Company of Readers," looks at histories of reading, and at the myths and reality of readers and reading. Contrary to the literacy doomsayers, we actually live in an extremely literate society, probably the most literate society in world history. In 21st Century North America, more people read and have access to reading materials than at any time or place in history. (This doesn't mean we shouldn't be concerned about illiteracy, however, especially since decent employment is increasingly linked to language skills, and illiteracy is often perpetuated within families.) Also contrary to popular myth, the internet seems to be helping people read and write more, not less, and there's no evidence that rapid, text-style communication has degraded literacy skills.

The stereotypical image of the heavy reader as introspective bookworm, cloistered from the world with her nose in a book, also does not appear to be based in fact. Studies show that habitual readers tend to be more engaged with the world, more active in their communities, and involved in more activities than people who do not read. The book is packed with that sort of wonderful myth-busting.

The first part of Reading Matters fleshes out a theme I've encountered in several library courses so far - the history of public libraries in relation to reading. These days, the shelves of your local library are likely to be well stocked with fiction, as libraries embrace and support the value of recreational reading. The central branch of the Mississauga Library System employs a librarian specifically for readers' advisory, called "Readers' Den". (I want that job!) But this is actually a relatively recent development in librarianship.

In the earliest and even not-so-earliest days of public libraries, librarians decried "the fiction problem". Patrons simply refused to read what was good for them and insisted on reading fiction! Excerpts from early library-science literature can be both hilarious and scary. In 1880, M. F. Sweetser described the dangers of "story papers", which offered serialized fiction in newspaper format. These eight-page, weekly papers sold for a nickel or six cents, and they were enormously popular.
The titles of the stories are viciously sensational and the situations are of the most impossible character, with spice of hair-breadth adventure, prurient description and scandalous suggestion. . . . And what is the result of all this mighty flood of unsavory literature/ Evil, and evil, and evil again. . . . Appetites depraved by heredity are pampered and glutted in their unnatural tastes during the most tender and formative years, and the broad road to perdition is opened before the myriads of little feet. . . . The instructors in some of our public schools keep a watch on the reading of their pupils, and report that the most unruly and rebellious boys are those who are addicted to the study of these fictions.
The librarians' constant mission and burden was to dissuade library patrons from wasting their time with the trivial, the lewd, the morally debased, and to force them to read the high-minded, the righteous, the library-sanctioned books that would set them on the road to self-improvement.

Librarians took this job very seriously. They banished fiction from their shelves. They hid fiction. They refused to order it. They devised regulations so that patrons could borrow one novel of their own choosing only after reading four non-fiction books that the librarian foisted on them. Yet try as librarians might - and they tried, they tried! - patrons insisted on reading what they wanted! Imagine that!

Not coincidentally, popular novels were often written by and for women, so of course they were considered foolish and superficial. But men, too, wanted to read "trash" - westerns, adventures, detective novels, whodunits. Librarians worked hard to stem the tide of such amusements that could turn hardy minds to mush. As you can see in the above quote, the whole enterprise was saturated in class prejudice, which itself was overlaid with racism and xenophobia, as so many of those "depraved by heredity" were immigrants.

Thankfully those days are gone. Fiction is now featured prominently in the stacks and on readers' advisory tables. Many libraries host book clubs and other means of encouraging recreational reading. But I see a hangover from those "fiction problem" days every time I hear someone scoff at Oprah's Book Club readers, genre fiction, self-help books, novelizations or graphic novels. Even the often-heard concession "...at least they're reading something" is condescending and judgemental.

I maintain that all reading has intrinsic value. No matter what people choose to read, reading is valuable for what it brings to that reader. Ross, McKechnie and Rothbauer take a similar view. They advise libraries to "have a generous and inclusive view of what counts as a reader" and "to avoid fetishizing a particular format as the only one to be associated with 'real reading'". Graphic novels, serial fiction, e-books, and all manner of popular fiction deserve space in a public library's collection.

The authors of Reading Matters argue effectively for librarians to reject judgments of what people want to read, and indeed to reject distinctions between supposedly "high" and "low" culture. Most of us could learn a thing or two from that.

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The book's second part, "Becoming a Reader, Childhood Years" looks at what factors help children become readers, if there are gender differences in reading acquisition (it appears so), if the present generation of young people has lower reading skills than previous generations (no!), why reading skills are often associated with class differences (it's not about inherent ability), and what adults can do to help children become proficient and comfortable readers (number one: read to them!).

Consider this: by age three, there is already a 30-million-word disparity between the words that children in families on social assistance have heard and the words that children of professional families have heard. In a long-term study of children across a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, children from welfare families had received half as much language experience (616 words per hour) as working-class children (1,251 words per hour) and one-third as much language experience as the children of professionals (2,153 words per hour).

Researchers also found a huge difference in the nature of this language: on average, welfare children received five encouragements and 11 prohibitions per hour, whereas the children of professionals thirty-two encouragements and five prohibitions per hour. In my experience teaching inner-city young adults, I saw the effects of those statistics, on both my students and their own children, who were being raised in the same encouragement-deprived way. Impoverishment of language is an aspect of poverty seldom acknowledged.

I found this portion of the book very rich and thought-provoking. Librarians, teachers, parents, grandparents or anyone involved in a child's literacy may find it fascinating and useful.

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The third section of Reading Matters, "Young Adults and Reading," was of particular interest to me. I used to write for young adults, I tutored and taught teens for many years, and I want eventually to work as a YA librarian. It's wonderful to read professional literature that takes teens seriously, is not condescending or moralizing, and wants to meet young people where they are, rather than force them into some place where some adults think they should be.

Contrary to what the chicken-littles would have you believe, young people do read. In fact, they are reading more than ever. As you may remember from your own teen years, reading often holds a special place in a young adult's life, validating their feelings, helping them feel less alone, helping them to form their identities. The authors also emphasize the connection between reading and writing, and how important writing is to many teens. Unfortunately, many libraries are still hostile, or at least unwelcoming, to youth culture. The "What Librarians and Parents Can Do" tips for this section were particularly insightful.

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The final part of Reading Matters, on adult readers, is a paean to readers and reading. This was the part of the book - and the subject of the paper that I shared with friends - that I found most personally meaningful: "What role does reading play in the life of a reader?" Many of you would probably recognize yourself in the excerpts from interviews with avid readers.
Avid readers say that reading gives them something that can't be experienced any other way. This value goes beyond the instrumental. Certainly they agree that by reading a lot they improve their level of literacy, increase their vocabulary, become better writers, and, as a result, do better at school and in their careers. But all this seems incidental. Committed readers are apt to say that reading is part of their identity. In answer to a question about the importance of pleasure reading in their lives, different readers in Ross's study said the following:

- For me to read is to live.

- Reading is almost a necessity.

- If I were stuck on a desert island without books, I would go crazy.

- My freedom to read is absolutely sacred.

- Reading becomes like eating and sleeping - I have to do it. I'd go nuts if I couldn't do it.

- It's a passion. I can't deny it.

- I can't live without reading. Blindness probably scares me more than anything.
The responses to the question, "What would it be like if for some reason or another you were unable to read?" were telling - and touching. People expressed shock and horror; they didn't want to even contemplate the idea. When pushed, they said that life without reading would be boring, empty, suffocating, a prison, that being unable to read would be unimaginably horrible, devastating.

Again and again, when asked what they derive from reading, readers listed the same themes. Comfort, validation, reassurance of one's normality, because characters in books have similar feelings. A respite from pressure. A way of clarifying opinions, getting a new perspective on the world. A way of learning about different places and cultures, developing empathy. Help in making decisions. Inspiration, courage and hope.

There are also beautiful descriptions of the unique pleasures of reading: the joy of being lost in a book, of being transported into a different world, enjoying a book so much that you can't wait to get back to it, being sad when you reach the end of a book, the delight of knowing you have a block of uninterrupted reading time, the experience of relishing the beauty of language. The way avid readers talk about reading, Ross, McKechnie and Rothbauer say, is a bit like old ads for "snake oil" medicine: reading will do anything you want it to do.

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