This week a response to a video on reading.

Kids with books are good, and I’m a big fan of books and always have been. I want to make that clear.

Kate Forsyth is an interesting writer and she has much of value to say about writing practice but a recent video has put me at odds with her. I will attempt to explain why, but before that, take a look at her video. She mounts a persuasive feel-good-yay-for-books argument that I didn’t want to take issue with, but I do.

What I agree on: writers want people to be literate. Of course they do. At the most material, it’s so they can have a wider audience to sell more books to. Good on them. There’s nothing wrong with that.  I want that too.

Broadly, I believe in this world literacy is a net benefit to a person. It’s how the modern world works. But I have issues around whether, as she put it, books are ‘essential’ for young children, especially for the reasons she states. She’s romanticising and essentialising a skill that is problematic for many.

It’s for the same reasons I sigh at Zadie Smith’s writing advice:

When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.

Forsyth’s quotes from the video are in bold.

Books are essential magical gateways to other worlds and other times. Don’t mistake me, if a child can read and comprehend at an early age, well done. But like I said, I keep tripping up on this word: essential.

Forsyth correctly identifies books as ways into other worlds/times. Agree, they are. I can see why the makers of books will argue books are essential ‘doorways’ into other worlds. Just like carpenters will argue actual doors are essential to gain access to buildings. However, Forsyth and carpenters miss the point, just are there are many ways to create an opening into a room, so to there are many ways of absorbing stories.  And, just because one door works for some, it won’t work for everyone.

Thus, I can hang a curtain or listen to an older person tell me a story. I can use a window to get into a room, or watch TV or a film to be transported to another place. I can go see a play, or better yet, be in a play, or make entire walls swivel. Options for gaining access to rooms and gaining access to stories are endless. Thus, neither doors nor stories depend upon reading.

My argument is that it’s not reading or books or even literacy that are essential. Water, food, shelter, warmth = essentials. But beyond them, since we are talking reading and literacy and books, what is most essential is stories.

Forsyth has the wrong emphasis. She’s talking up the container or the conduit, rather than the things they contain or convey.

I don’t necessarily see reading as the magical wonder miracle of empathy and civilisation that Forsyth imagines either. For a couple of reasons.

Before I go further, there is the big personal reason: I couldn’t read until I was almost 10. This was frustrating and stigmatising, but I never lacked for stories, nor books. In fact, this developmental delay aided in my later appreciation of the written word and determination to conquer the written form.

Books are doors for children to step outside themselves and their own skin, beliefs and thoughts. This maybe true, but this can also be achieved by meeting other people, attending school or kindergarten, playing, even interacting with animals or watching television. So too sitting outside and imagining what it feels like to be a cloud or a toy truck or the neighbour’s kid. All of which aren’t predicated on obtaining a skill such as reading. Books add to kids store of imagination, they are not it. And, there kids who aren’t inspired by books at all. I attended school with many of them, and they got to step outside themselves in other ways, like through competition or team sports, or whatever.

To access other ways of living and being I used my imagination. I couldn’t read, but I did have empty cardboard boxes I used to ‘watch’ my own made up television programs ‘on’. I also watched actual television, including a crap-load of documentaries, and went outside. I never lacked for stimulus, living as I did on a rural property.  There was a wide sky, educative experiences about birth, life and death, and other people. In short, there were other ways of living and being. Our cat died and we had a funeral. There was a shoe box burial, but since the cat was flattened by a truck, the box was empty. I dwelt on that, aged four, for a long time. I inhabited that cat’s body. No secondary experience mediated via a book could’ve brought me the same immediacy.

Early attempt at reading was unsuccessful.

Book of Nice Things I couldn’t appreciate. 

Nothing makes our brains work better or faster than reading. Nothing? I think imminent danger makes our brains work efficiently. For most of human existence our brains did fine without writing. Humans developed and remembered sophisticated rituals, stories and cultures. They overcame difficulties, and invented and utilised tools that are with us still, like the wheel and fire.

One of the founders of Western philosophy, Socrates, was illiterate. As he wandered Athens pestering people, he worried about reading degrading abilities to remember. He also sounded like a 1950s Dad going on about reading corrupting youth like it was rock n roll.

Homer, called the father of Western literature, worked within an oral tradition. Some legends about him claim he was blind. Thus: fire, wheels, literature and philosophy came about without literacy and that lights up my mind no end.

Access to learning. True, books can offer access to learning, but it doesn’t mean the things children learn when they pick up reading material are always useful or wise, or age appropriate. Reading too, is different to full comprehension. And reading is but one way to access knowledge or learn. If all we had to do to learn was read, why bother with school beyond learning how to read? Humans have many different learning styles, and it’s wrong to valorise one over others to the detriment of children. Some children may read a story, others may prefer to hear it to get the full magical benefit, others may want to act it out.

It changes them. Books may change people, because some changed me. But they can sway anyone at any age, not just kids. However, all sorts of experiences shape children, books aren’t the only one, or even the most important. Sickness, poverty, moving, siblings, all change kids. I’m certain not reading shaped me as much as reading later did.

It expands their boundaries. Perhaps, but only if a child becomes invested in what they read or think it applies to them. Reading could equally limit kids because they experience all sorts of phobias and fears, some of which are inspired by what read. And anyway kids grow and growth naturally pushes physical, attitudinal and other boundaries. If it doesn’t, you’re growing your kids like bonsai.

Children develop more empathy and understanding. Perhaps some kids do or some would have been naturally empathetic anyway. But for others, no, or not necessarily. This assertion essentialist in a world where we know brains and minds are complex. In addition, the aftermath of World War II initiated discussion on the ‘failure’ of the ‘humanities to humanise’. I spent Honours discussing this, and not reaching a firm conclusion. Artists, writers and readers can be lovely people, they can build libraries, galleries and museums, but they can also do this while officiating over the murder of 15 million people, like King Leopold II of Belgium. Leo and his ilk can be steeped in the wonder of high culture from an early age, but this is not an inoculation against barbarity or insurance  for its prevention.

As for me? At five I wasn’t an untutored, horrible wild child running amok without feeling or insight into other beings or bodies due to an inability to read. In fact, I was mostly pretty sensitive and empathetic towards children, adults and animals.

Reading allows children to leave their troubles behind to come back with learnings to deal with problems.  Maybe, or sometimes. Maybe because I skipped so many kid books, I missed the problem solving of….No. I didn’t because I went back to read the likes of Maurice Sendak and wasn’t comforted. The first story I read on my own, was the Little Match Girl – poor, starving girl, dead of cold. It didn’t relieve my troubles, just added new ones. Later, in early high school English a semester was devoted to fiction (and films) on nuclear war. It shaped me, by adding this new anxiety to all the others. At 13 I didn’t want to be contemplating solitary homeless teens giving birth to a mutant  babies in a blighted world. Decades later, I still don’t.

My early-ish reading (Ivan Southall, Colin Thiele, Patricia Wrightson + others) brought home how real my own problems were, and often, how I lacked the skills and resources to solve them compared to the protagonists. I marvelled at how kids survived (or didn’t) homelessness, poverty, water spouts, plane crashes, fires and boarding schools.

Once I started reading it became an escape, but it wasn’t always a healthy one. I could ignore all sorts of angst by reading Lord of the Rings, but there were no Eagles coming to the rescue from the usual crappy high school experiences. Had I not spent lunches in the library for a couple of years, life might have been different. Maybe.

Denying this gift to step outside themselves is a terrible thing. If Forsyth is talking about teaching kids early: maybe, but no three-year old should stress over it. If parents are hot housing toddlers, getting them to learn early what they will learn anyway later, they’ll likely find the long-term benefits will be negligible, because most other kids catch up. I couldn’t read at 9. But by 16 I had read Les Miserables when few in my school even knew what it was, or cared.

Not sure Forsyth is talking about withholding books. It seems Forsyth is implying people are deliberately withholding kids from reading, like it isn’t a skill that takes years to master for most people.

Calling it a gift sets literacy as a present bestowed to good kids at Christmas, while the rest of us delayed or dyslexic kids get lumps of coal. In this understanding, kids who can’t read are in the naughty corner, deemed not good enough, stuck in our own skins, and missing out on empathy lessons.

So I resent how this is termed. I had a developmental delay, I wasn’t denied a gift. It was my brain and mind locking me out of an experience my peers were having. I was gifted (if you like) the consciousness of missing out and the stigma was terrible and, because literacy was everything, the stress was immense.

My point: reading is a skill and books can beautiful and wonderful, but if you never gain the skill, or do, but much later, or if you can’t get to a book, these are not reasons to miss out on stories and you are not a lesser person.

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