I’m here giving this talk tonight, under the auspices of the Reading Agency: a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. Which supports literacy programs, and libraries and individuals and nakedly and wantonly encourages the act of reading. Because, they tell us, everything changes when we read.
And it’s that change, and that act of reading that I’m here to talk about tonight. I want to talk about what reading does. What it’s good for.
I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.
It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.
And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.
Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.
The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King explains what writing is in three words: “Telepathy, of course.”
Then again, this isn’t an entirely new concept. When we were kids, writing was explained as the act of transmitting ideas from our brains onto a sheet of paper. But I don’t know, telepathy just sounds better. For one thing, it means transmitting real objects from one space and time to another, I like this. It means writing doesn’t end or even begin with the writer’s internal struggle, but with the notion that the writer has something to show and can do so by making his mind connect with that of the reader.
And while this may sound ridiculous, even “cute,” as King says other people might call it, we’ve experienced what he’s talking about.
To make the point, King writes a description of a bunny, munching a carrot in a cage with the number 8 written on his back in blue ink and says this afterward, “The most interesting thing here isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back… This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me… We’re having a meeting of the minds.” And he was right. We are looking at the number on the bunny’s back. We feel connected to him as if we were present with him examining the number.
The question I ask now is, how did he do that? How did he know the number was the subject of our focus? It was his, but how did he know he had successfully pulled our gaze from the cage, bunny and the carrot and onto the blue number?
Of course, you could say, “it’s obviously the most interesting thing in the piece” or “Well, he is the writer, after all. He knew we would want to look at something as out of place as the blue number on the bunny.” And yes, the example is a very easy one to see. But his acclaimed fame as a writer would defend that this is not something he does by accident, but knows exactly what we are seeing. And my question is how did he learn this?
It was always my hope, in writing novels and stories which asked the question “What is reality?”, to someday get an answer. This was the hope of most of my readers, too. Years passed. I wrote over thirty novels and over a hundred stories, and still I could not figure out what was real. One day a girl college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” That’s all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven’t been able to define reality any more lucidly.
But the problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game. Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups—and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener. Sometimes when I watch my eleven-year-old daughter watch TV, I wonder what she is being taught. The problem of miscuing; consider that. A TV program produced for adults is viewed by a small child. Half of what is said and done in the TV drama is probably misunderstood by the child. Maybe it’s all misunderstood. And the thing is, Just how authentic is the information anyhow, even if the child correctly understood it? What is the relationship between the average TV situation comedy to reality? What about the cop shows? Cars are continually swerving out of control, crashing, and catching fire. The police are always good and they always win. Do not ignore that point: The police always win. What a lesson that is. You should not fight authority, and even if you do, you will lose. The message here is, Be passive. And—cooperate. If Officer Baretta asks you for information, give it to him, because Officer Beratta is a good man and to be trusted. He loves you, and you should love him.
If you have a child entering grade school this fall, file away just one number with all those back-to-school forms: 65 percent.
Chances are just that good that, in spite of anything you do, little Oliver or Abigail won’t end up a doctor or lawyer — or, indeed, anything else you’ve ever heard of. According to Cathy N. Davidson, co-director of the annual MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions, fully 65 percent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet.
So Abigail won’t be doing genetic counseling. Oliver won’t be developing Android apps for currency traders or co-chairing Google’s philanthropic division. Even those digital-age careers will be old hat. Maybe the grown-up Oliver and Abigail will program Web-enabled barrettes or quilt with scraps of Berber tents. Or maybe they’ll be plying a trade none of us old-timers will even recognize as work.
For those two-thirds of grade-school kids, if for no one else, it’s high time we redesigned American education.
As Ms. Davidson puts it: “Pundits may be asking if the Internet is bad for our children’s mental development, but the better question is whether the form of learning and knowledge-making we are instilling in our children is useful to their future.”
In her galvanic new book, “Now You See It,” Ms. Davidson asks, and ingeniously answers, that question. One of the nation’s great digital minds, she has written an immensely enjoyable omni-manifesto that’s officially about the brain science of attention. But the book also challenges nearly every assumption about American education.
…Simply put, we can’t keep preparing students for a world that doesn’t exist. We can’t keep ignoring the formidable cognitive skills they’re developing on their own. And above all, we must stop disparaging digital prowess just because some of us over 40 don’t happen to possess it. An institutional grudge match with the young can sabotage an entire culture.
When we criticize students for making digital videos instead of reading “Gravity’s Rainbow,” or squabbling on Politico.com instead of watching “The Candidate,” we are blinding ourselves to the world as it is. And then we’re punishing students for our blindness. Those hallowed artifacts — the Thomas Pynchon novel and the Michael Ritchie film — had a place in earlier social environments. While they may one day resurface as relevant, they are now chiefly of interest to cultural historians. But digital video and Web politics are intellectually robust and stimulating, profitable and even pleasurable.