… all I can do is read a book to stay awake, And it rips my life away, But it’s a great escape … BLind MeLoN, “No Rain” (1992)
Recently, I did something very unhealthy. It started innocently enough with picking up a book a student had pointed out to me last year (Papertowns, by John Green) finishing it, and then - this is where the trouble began - I immediately began another one, finished that one, and then I was on a binge, reading through a seven volume cycle, switching between reading paperbacks and my phone app, reading when I woke up at night, in the morning, after breakfast, and on the beach, neglecting, among many other things, my laundry, dirty dishes, and I think my husband. When I came out of this, I felt slightly dazed, disoriented, and kind of grumpy. Altogether, it was a very familiar feeling, because this is how I used to spend all my summers, ever since I had gotten up to speed in reading at some point in elementary school. Back then, we didn’t have books assigned over the summer, and perhaps a list of required summer readings would have stopped me from chain reading in this particularly unhinged way that seemed a bit too much even to myself. I mean, it wasn’t lost on me that none of the books I read featured people spending their entire summers reading book after book, while there were plenty of children, teenagers, and adults involved in all kinds of adventures – solving crimes, having complicated relationships, and going through intriguing and sometimes frightening states of mind. Even a fictional character with whom I could identify, such as the protagonist of “The NeverEnding Story”, whose guilty pleasure activity was hiding away with a stolen book in his despised school’s attic to read, undisturbed - even he got drawn into a very active adventure involving flying dragons and much else. I was perfectly aware of the fact that there was something called “real life” happening all around me that I was somehow not really getting to.
Why did I read so much? The question always stopped me in my tracks, and I was still quite unable to answer it when I once had to write an assigned paper on the topic: “Why do we read literature?”. What did I know about why other people take to books? Why read, indeed, at all? What good ever came out of my personal addiction to this activity? Instead of being able to answer the question of why “we” read, I wanted to find out about myself. Did I read because I am too afraid of real life to approach it directly? Because I like the way it makes me feel while I’m doing it, even though it removes me from reality a lot and often makes me feel cross and out of sorts for days? Or simply because I need this escape to survive? For my paper, I resorted to quoting a philosopher I had read about who seemed to express, in an academically acceptable fashion, some of the things reading meant to me, while veiling the “bad” escapist part of reading. But in essence, that was probably the most important part of reading for me: escape. Or, come to think of it in a more positive way: searching for something.
None of this, however, figured in a discussion on reading that I listened to on the radio the other day, where reading was unequivocally touted as a very good thing, no matter what. It was held to teach everything we need and are seemingly about to lose in education: not just vocabulary, spelling, and the ability to write, but deep critical thinking, making inferences, cultural knowledge, empathy and self-reflection, to name just a few of its benefits.
It was like hearing that eating ice cream and bagels (stuff I eat while I read, to enhance the experience, in case you wonder where this is coming from) is a perfect way to build muscle and protect me from all kinds of disease. I wish!
It was just a bit too good to be all true. I don’t want to dispute the many excellent things I got from my excessive reading habits (in short, pretty much my entire professional life), and it’s probably not a bad thing to have some of the good things associated with reading pointed out, but none of this makes me want to read one bit more, and it didn’t have anything to do with why I wanted to read in the first place, as far as I can recall.
It was hard for me to listen to this talk about winning teenagers over to reading and not perceive it as condescending. This impression might have been due to the fact that the radio discussion between David Denby and Tom Ashbrook, focusing on Denby’s book (Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twentyfour Books That Can Change Lives) about heroic teachers involved in trying to get their teenage students to read., did not feature many direct expressions from students about why they do or do not read, which I would have liked to hear. There was a young woman though, who said she liked reading as a way of finding characters in books that she felt in a way she could identify with, making her feel less alone, a fact that she said helped her get through the day. I was glad she said that; there is, somewhere at the core of reading, identification, a strange blending with some other. But what if the character with whom you identify was doing bad things, but reading it, you got kind of enmeshed with it? How about that Kafka quote:
... we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
How would I deal with that kind of book as a teacher? Is reading always so wholesome and simply edifying as Denby’s and Ashbrook’s conversation made it sound like? Or are we forgetting some of the more destabilizing, scary, and attractive aspects of reading? I wonder, is reading considered laudable behavior now, because the perceived collective disappearance of children – and often of adults – into cyberspace seems so much worse? Most people I know find the Victorian notion that reading novels would be harmful – even, especially for women, ludicrous. Will people in future years find such opinions on the evils of electronic games and the shallowness of social media similarly ridiculous and blinded?
I wonder. In the meantime, I’ll probably pick up Denby’s book, see what I’ve missed from the discussion, and perhaps check out some of these life changing books they were talking about. But then again, now I kind of like my life the way it is, and perhaps rather than going on another reading binge too soon, I’ll check if we have enough paper towels at school. You know, get the real world stuff done, so that when students are back, they don’t have to bug us about it, and I can perhaps get some more reading suggestions from them. While I sometimes ask myself whether anyone is ever going to read any of the thousands of books that surround us at school, I don’t think you will find me, or any other staff member at school, engaged in trying to make somebody read one or the other book that we have particularly strong feelings about, or that we feel will somehow open our students’ eyes about their lives.
On the other hand, you often will find us looking at books, processing and shelving books, talking about them, sharing from our reading experience, and yes, reading out loud, not at some particular story time or in English class, but when the occasion arises in the normal course of a day.