Reading and Wronging

Sainsburys own-brand Captain Cereal says reading is really cool

This is wrong on so many levels.

Grown-ups telling kids that something that's supposed to be good for them is cool, through the medium of an own-brand cartoon character on a supermarket own-brand cereal box, is about as un-cool as you can get without spontaneous combustion.

Reading and writing is cool. Being able to kind-of hear what someone else said, even thousands of years ago on the other side of the world from a long-gone civilisation, is pretty amazing! The Epic of Gilgamesh has parts that go back 4,000 years, there are the myths of the ancient Greeks' and Romans' gods and heroes, stories from people who were around Alexander The Great as he conquered half the known world more than 2,000 years ago, the Doomsday Book listing who owned what in Britain a thousand years ago, Shakespeare's dramas that can still have you on the edge of your seat once you get used to the unfamiliar Elizabethan language, true and made-up stories from the Far East and the Wild West, from Scott of the Antarctic to Lawrence of Arabia, from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea to War Of The Worlds, from Newton and Darwin describing how the world works to Adam Smith and Karl Marx saying how it ought to work, serious books, funny books, romance, adventure, fantasy, reality, books, magazines, newspapers, comics, blogs, twitter, email, texts, post-it notes, bumper stickers, lapel badges – even tattoos ... reading and writing is so much a part of our society nowadays that it's as easy to imagine life without money or sex as without writing.

Printing, the telephone, radio, photography, cinematography, TV and the internet are pretty neat too, but reading and writing has an accessible DIY quality: anyone can do it – and people have, for thousands of years – with practically zero technology.

child reading a book

child praying

But reading has acquired a cultural significance beyond its immense utility. The image of a child with their head in a book has the sort of iconic quality in our society today that the child kneeling with hands clasped in earnest prayer had to Victorian sentiment.

So much so that do we really consider what they are reading? Is it instilling and reinforcing misogynist, heteronormative, competitive, might-is-right stereotypes? Do we care as long as they're not glued to the TV?

A child immersed in a book is as cut off from the world around them as one sitting in front of the idiot box or thumbs twitching on a computer game (maybe more so: some computer games allow players not just to play with but to chat to other players, even on the other side of the world, via the internet). Maybe that's OK, at least some of the time: a balance of introverted and extroverted activities is probably healthy. But there's a cultural meme that gives book-addiction a free ride that being glued to the TV or video game (rightly) doesn't get. Reading a book by torchlight under the covers after bedtime has acquired a misty romanticism that the child illicitly playing a computer game after lights-out doesn't benefit from.

reading book under bedcovers by torchlight

Literacy has such a primacy in our developed world today that its absence is as debilitating as physical or mental disabilities. Other skills are described in reference to it: emotional literacy, computer literacy, scientific literacy. Yet as a general prerequisite for full membership of society it is fairly recent: only a few generations ago it was a far from widespread accomplishment amongst the general population. It is interesting to imagine what society might be like if instead of the ability to read and write, say, emotional literacy were the sine qua non of a full member of society: it might be a less "cultured" world, but maybe one from which we wouldn't be so driven to retreat into bookish pursuits.

reading book under bedcovers by torchlight

In the world as we find it, however, maybe we'd do our children – and ourselves – a favour by taking books down off the pedestal. We should certainly try to give them the skills of reading and writing, just as we want them to be toilet trained and able to get along with other people. We can share with them our enjoyment of reading (assuming we do enjoy it ourselves) and its utility, but we need to show them that it's a means to an end – entertainment or gathering information – not an end in itself.

rights of the reader

(It's interesting to try substituting "watch TV" or "play computer game" for "reading" above!)

Here's a nice blog about reading

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