Some Myths About Reading

Teacher Pernille Ripp writes an excellent post about some of the major myths we have–and need to get rid of–about reading.

# 1.  We say to each other, “This is a girl book; this is a boy book.”  What?  This is a what?  There’s no such thing.  They used to say that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a “boys” book.  Not so.  Twain meant it for everyone.  If women say they can’t read it because women aren’t in it, that’s because they haven’t put themselves in it.  That’s what we have to do–put ourselves in the books in the books we’re reading, especially those books that appear not to have been written for us.  Millions of women have skipped Moby-Dick until recently, as they have finally discovered that its tale of fatal pride and obsession can speak to them just as easily as it does to a man.  Books Here And There began over a year ago with some comments on the sensitive (and supposedly girlish and juvenile) novel, Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson; its most recent long entry was a review of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.  It takes no special, inherent trait for women to write about men or men to write about women.  It takes merely the gifts that all writers are seeking to develop in the first place:  sympathy, imagination, and tact.

# 2.  We say to a novice reader, “This is an easy read.”  Maybe it is, but maybe an easy read is not what we’re after, or maybe that’s not what those who are trying to encourage us are offering us.  Dickens’s A Tale Of Two Cities absolutely rocked for me in ninth grade, but the book that changed my life that year was a novel that Margaret Jefferson put in my hands alone, Richard Wright’s Native Son.  It was scandalous pulp fiction and Wright wrote it in part because he knew it would sell; but he also wrote it because he knew that the experience of being black in Chicago in 1940 went way beyond the simplistic politics of the Communist Party.  Imagine, if you will, the effect of that book upon a sensitive white boy from Houston’s near north side.  Mrs. Jefferson understood what the old teacher Gilbert Highet once said:  “Students deserve a glimpse at the depths they cannot yet fathom.”  I understood Native Son immediately, but suppose some other intelligent boy or girl had not?  No matter.  That boy or that girl will pick up the book later on; he or she will remember that we had faith back then that such a reader was ready for it; and he or she will, most probably, think kindly of us for giving a boy or girl that chance.  Whether you’re a common reader or a teacher, I would say, give books, or suggest them, based on your estimation of whether the intended recipient will be interested in the book, not your estimate of the recipient’s skill in reading.

# 3.  We say, “Boys don’t like to read.”  Bull.  Where, pray tell, do you think all those sexist, misogynist college professors came from?  They came from little boys who did nothing but read and never met any real women.  It’s ok; Nietzsche had the same problem.  The point is, we can handle such louts.  We’ve been doing it for years.  What we should never have allowed ourselves to believe is that boys don’t like to read.  Of course they do.  Reading answers the same essential questions for boys that it does for girls:  A.  How the hell do I make my way through the mess I’ve gotten myself into? (i.e., the world)  B. How do I express what I feel about that mess?  And C.  How can I clean up that mess and make the world a better place?   I cannot believe that we have actually come to this pass, but if it really is true that we have allowed an entire generation of boys to grow up believing that it is shameful to read, then I am with Ms. Ripp:  it stops now.

# 4.  We say, “I don’t read as much as I used to.”  Maybe so.  Books cannot solve every problem.  There is no substitute for working in the real world (including the actual, physical labor of writing a book), and the more you have to work, the less you’ll have time to read.  But we must make some time for it.  Through the words on the page, books suspend for us the ceaseless flow of human activity and thought and allow us the opportunity to contemplate it, over many days and nights, if necessary.  That is an essential step in intellectual growth that daily life itself cannot provide.  Books penetrate for us the minds we cannot know; they offer us a form of experience we can receive in no other way.  We may read fewer books as we age, but we may, if we set our minds to it, read more carefully those books that we do read.  And we may read more appreciatively, as well.  Reading is, after all, humanity’s greatest learned skill, and the most profound gift that we can pass on to the generations to come.

# 5.  We say, “Well, it’s a comic book.  He’s not really reading.”  Please.  Do you have any idea how great Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ book Watchmen really is?  Do you?  Then shut the hell up and read the thing.  And when you’re reading it, think about the discipline, the exactitude necessary to fill the thought bubbles on the page with not just middling words, but complex sentences that tell an amazing story.  Think about astonishing artwork that, shade after shade, panel after panel, conveys the moods not only of extraordinary characters, but also the cultural temperaments of two different eras in world history.  You think about those things, and then try to explain away the concentration one needs in order to read it and be rewarded by it.

# 6.  We say, “He’s too old to read aloud; he’s too old for a picture book; he’s too old for this or that.”  Samuel Johnson believed that the last acquirement of a civilized mind was “a readiness to be pleased.”  You all know by now (I cannot hide it) that I am full of middle-aged crankiness; but I hope–God, I hope–that my coming years will allow me to cultivate at least some measure of Johnson’s “readiness to be pleased.”  As we age, we often fear everything that is not familiar to us; but that does not always have to be the case.  New and delightful things are being created all the time, and we have every right to sample them.  But the past belongs to us, as well.  Books that we put to one side when we were younger are still there to be read right now.  Yet, if it pleases us to leaf through the latest National Geographic book on the wonders of the sea, or a bit of Ogden Nash’s verse, if it pleases us to read the opening lines of Jacob Have I Loved aloud to ourselves, why should we not do it?  In these reading ways, all of our senses are engaged, and that is a great benefit to us for as long as we live.  We know well enough that the mind keeps on going right up until our end, but it can do more than that.  If we take care of it, and use it fully, it will keep us company right up until our end, too.


One thought on “Some Myths About Reading

  1. Pingback: Did Anybody Win At The Hugo Awards This Year? | Books Here And There

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