Those Who Can’t…Read

I’m not a great one for using quotes. I always figure that the whole point of being a writer is to use your own words, but it was a quote from the appendix of Edmond Grace’s Democracy and Public Happiness that prompted this article: ‘We place peace in danger if we underestimate the power of warfare to seduce young men, in particular, and if we fail to devise ways of overcoming that seduction’.

It sounds obvious when you lay it out like that. The line was the beginning of a discussion on warfare and spirituality, but it struck me that we face a very tangible version of this problem in the world of children’s books. We place literacy in danger if we underestimate the power of violence to seduce young boys, and if we fail to create a channel for that power.

We’re not as evolved as we like to think. While our society is making great strides towards a civilized world, as individuals we are still driven by the same base instincts that kept the cavemen (and women) alive back in the wild old days. Nowhere is this more true than in the form of prepubescent boys – and, some might argue, in most of the older ones too. We are simple creatures in an increasingly complicated world. Let’s have a look at that world from the point of view of a typical boy in primary school in Ireland or the UK:
Let’s say you have not been lucky enough to be born into a particularly book-loving home. Both of your parents work. The television has become a baby-sitter, bombarding you with images of dramatic, stylized, idealized lives, so different from your own. From an early age, you are able to recognize brands and celebrities, flick between television stations and watch DVDs over and over again. But you are less likely than the generation before you to be riding a bike, climbing trees or wandering beyond the watchful eyes of your parents.

Even as you start developing an aversion to hugs and kisses from your doting mum, you still enjoy horseplay with your father; wrestling, being thrown in the air, the giddy horror of being tickled. But he often comes home late after a long commute, and is too busy or too tired to play with you. By the time you were old enough to go to school, you had already have discovered the armchair magic of computer games… but physical play is still the best buzz.

At school, you are forced to sit behind a desk for a large part of the day, five days a week, when you’d much rather be up and doing things or making things or playing outside. You are trained to sit down for long periods of time. It’s as if you’re being punished. Those base instincts of yours are outraged, but there’s nothing you can do about it. Television programmes, particularly advertising, will already have started making it clear that boys are dumber than girls. The media, particularly in advertising, are still not over that post-feminist thing of the girl in a story having to be more sensible than the boy (I’m guilty of that one myself on several counts).

It might even be true, because girls seem to be able to handle this sitting-behind-a-desk business better than boys. Except for a few male high fliers, they seem to average better grades. Even at home, your mother is far more likely to be seen reading a book than your father, who prefers the newspaper or some magazine or instruction manual. Instead, your greatest enjoyment and satisfaction is in the ritualized combat that is sport. You particularly enjoy winning. You love overcoming your opponents. It’s more exciting to compete than cooperate. Life is simpler when you’re engaged in physical activities. You can succeed through coordination, skill and aggression, things you can learn just by having fun. Your body tells you this is how it’s meant to be; it rewards you with an adrenaline rush of pleasure you feel to your very soul. You are hardwired to enjoy the things that keep you alive in the wild; food, water, physical comfort, intimacy with those close to you and (hopefully at a reasonable age) sex. And, of course, overcoming physical challenges, defeating an opponent – or perhaps even your prey.

But soon it’s back inside you go to your desk. Schoolwork centres round books and at first the benefits are less obvious. Even if your parents have not instilled in you a love of books, the odds are you will learn to read because everybody around you tells you it’s nigh on impossible to get by without it, and you do like hearing stories and would love to be able to read them yourself. But you just don’t get the same adrenaline rush as you struggle through those first few years of academia. Abstract concepts hold less interest for you than tangible ones – you have more respect for someone who can put a car engine together than someone who appreciates Shakespeare. You value problem-solving over emotional expression. You prefer to look outward, rather than inward. Eventually, you can read more or less fluently and despite the competition from sports and computer games, you’re willing to give this reading lark a chance. But there are so many things competing for your time now and you find yourself veering towards activities that feed those base instincts again. You can’t help yourself; it’s in your nature.

But those instincts are becoming less and less relevant. In fact, you are growing up in a world where the role of men is no longer clearly defined. Man is no longer the only bread-winner. And you can’t even look forward to being the defender of the homestead.

With a friendly superpower across the water on either side of us, outright war with your nation’s neighbours is unlikely, and even then modern warfare has been depersonalized by technology that can kill across vast distances, rendering individuals impotent.

With an effective police force and an organized system of justice, physical strength just isn’t as valuable as it used to be in defending the home. Your status is no longer decided by your ability to provide food and protection. Outside of professional sport, even the behaviour that accompanies these skills is inappropriate: We do not duel over honour. Aggression is frowned upon and overt machismo is ridiculed.

Even the trades that used to require physical strength are on the decline in your country, or are being made easy with the proliferation of power tools. And besides, they lack the status of more intellectual or more glamorous work. You are more likely than ever before to end up in a desk job when you leave school or finish college. Manufacturing is on its way out. DIY is considered a hobby, though serious tasks are left to the professionals. People prefer to buy things than to make them. In some other country, other, less fortunate people are saving you the hassle. We do not fix things, we simply replace them. Manual skills become valued for putting together self-assembly furniture with the Allen key provided.

While society has evolved, you have not. Those instincts to overcome challenges, to fight and hunt are still there and they want to be let loose. And like drug addiction or overeating or pornography, you will find a way to satisfy them or they’ll find it themselves.

As a schoolboy, you have to make a hundred petty decisions every day, from the multiple choice questions in your maths book to choosing the ring-tone on your new mobile phone. The factors that will decide your success in life are numerous, insubstantial and transitory. You are bombarded with images conjuring a life you can’t seem to achieve no matter how hard you try. You are confused, frustrated. You can’t even figure out what real success is anymore – there seem to be so many definitions. Do exams really matter or not? The stress becomes intolerable. And inside you, that animal is telling you this is all desperately unfair. You should just be able to fight your way to the top of the pile. You hunger for a life where success is determined in one swift, decisive, dramatic act. And the very pinnacle of this is muscle-straining, teeth-clenching, bone-crunching, heart-racing violence – a true life-and-death conflict.

The very opposite of an existence sheltered by democracy, law and order… social welfare. You are a wild animal forced to perform bewildering tricks in a circus.

So you seek out violence; physically, in the constrained form of sport, but also in your entertainment: television, films, computer games. You fantasize about problems that can be solved by punching or kicking, stabbing or shooting or blowing things up. You’ve never had to fight for your life, but you watch 24 or Saw, or play Grand Theft Auto. You become fascinated with the Second World War, Vietnam or the Gulf. There are even computer games set in real historical battles where, years ago, real men were maimed and killed. You don’t care that these games disrespect their memory and provide no moral position on the violence you are committing on-screen – merely the option to play again. Material deemed unsuitable for you simply promises greater excitement. Even with all the other distractions, you know you should be reading. Most of those with the highest status in society have good educations and you want to be one of them. But there’s no such thing as passive reading. You have to put in the effort to get results and it can take a while before you’re able to read those exciting stories on your own. As an entertainment, it’s hobbled at the start of the race. But you persevere because you know that there’s stuff out there you like. It’s a pity that most of what’s considered suitable for you is so tame compared to other forms of entertainment.

The ‘naughty’ books you are offered are nothing compared to what you’d write yourself, if you could get away with it. You come out into the schoolyard telling your friends about this book where boy cheats in an egg-and-spoon race. One of your friends tells you how last night, he blew a guy’s head off with his nine millimetre and drove over the dead body with his Subaru Impreza, escaping the police by engaging his nitrous oxide system. As a boy reader, you’re probably not aware that the children’s book industry is dominated by women. Most of the writers, agents, editors, publicists, reviewers, specialist booksellers, librarians and teachers are women. Women are not violent by nature – most of them abhor it. They tend not to commit violent crimes, engage in or even watch rough contact sports (although these trends seem to be changing). For many women, trying to understand the thrill of violence is tantamount to a man trying to understand what it’s like to be pregnant.

So, unlike the worlds of movies and games, it’s inevitable that female taste will dominate in children’s books. And while women – unlike most men – will read just about anything, books that do nothing more than provoke this ‘blood-thirst’ in boys are, at best, valued for appealing to those ‘difficult’ boy readers or, at worst, dismissed as trash. Books with regular action scenes (or, for that matter, earthy humour – your favourite kind) do not win awards.

Contrast this with the male-dominated world of comics, where action is the staple diet.

As a typical boy in primary school, you find that the books, comics and magazines you love best are often considered low-brow – mere stepping stones to the realm of ‘proper’ books. If you find more literary stuff boring, it’s because you’re not literate enough, not intelligent enough. Your parents failed you.

The fact that this kind of reading doesn’t interest you enough to provide a goal worth attaining, that you feel more affinity with 50 Cent than Umberto Eco, is your problem, not theirs. If you don’t make it that far, you will have failed. And you hate to fail. You would rather opt out than face what promises to be certain failure. And the fact that many of the people pushing these literary books have little interest in the things you love and the people you respect (because those guys do things) you become convinced that academia is not for you. By the time you have reached a level in your education where abstract concepts can offer the most exciting possibilities, you have decided that reading is for girls, swots, intellectuals… nerds. And you are not one of them and never want to be.

I don’t have definitive answers for what appears to be the biggest problem facing educators today. I do believe that games, television and films are not the enemies of reading, as they are so often portrayed. They are feeding a need that is there, one that is patently not being fed enough by books. I think part of the blame, paradoxically, lies with a lifestyle where young children are not encouraged to explore and get dirty and take risks. They are safer in front of the telly, or playing a console game. They’re not burning off all that fidgety energy churning up inside them. They’re not being left outside to find their own entertainment and let their imaginations run riot.

I think that children – and boys at primary school level in particular – need to spend much less time sitting at desks and more time applying what they learn in their lessons to practical tasks, where they can use their hands and move around more. They need be encouraged to use their initiative; problem-solving, building things, maybe even things they read about in stories.

Ireland and the UK have an appalling lack of playgrounds and sporting facilities for kids, and we could be using them to associate reading with play. We could have whole pages of local sporting news displayed on notice-boards – at a ten-year old’s eye-level – in communal sports-grounds and the bare walls of gymnasiums for them to read while waiting for their friends to get changed, or their parents to pick them up. We could have the alphabet painted around every playground, not just in schools, but everywhere. Fairy-tales and nursery rhymes on billboards. We could have the instructions for playground games on easy-to-read, illustrated signs. We could commission intelligent graffiti.We could ensure that not every piece of attractive typography on display around or near our schools is a piece of advertising.

Reading is thought of as solitary and quiet – the opposite of playing outside. We should make it more interactive and even take it out of the classroom: Why is there so little reading aloud for the sheer pleasure of it, without analysis, particularly in secondary schools? We could have contests where kids of any age, either individually or in teams, compete against their classmates to read out the funniest/scariest/most thrilling/most disgusting passage from a book of their choice. We could have more children’s literature quizzes. We could have storytelling sessions outside the classroom, in the yard or on some stretch of grass or under some trees. Go somewhere that sets the mood. What’s the point of studying classical plays without acting out some of the scenes during class? Plays were not written to be read.

When it comes to the development of reading in English class and indeed the ‘real world’, we seem to have adopted a very linear approach. The epitome of high-level reading is the literary novel – a problematic term if ever I heard one. For the book-lover, reading is an end in itself, a means of losing yourself in another world, sharing the stories, thoughts, feelings and ideas of the writer; for those few precious hours their attention is focussed on you, and you alone. The writers whose mastery of language provides the richest, most evocative and thought-provoking reading are the most highly respected.

But most of the reading we do in our lives is not of this type. Our lives are full of text; everything from news to road signs, adverts to emails. For many people, reading is not the end in itself; it is communication, information, a link between concepts and the real world, the abstract in concrete form. Why then, is this not recognized in our English classes? I don’t just mean in terms of comprehension; reading instructions or questions and writing answers. Why is their no exercise to see if someone can interpret text well enough to perform a manual task, or even vice versa, to write a set of instructions? Manual skills are taught separately and judged in isolation. How many problems in our world are caused by badly worded instructions, or by misinterpreting them? Why is it that most of us don’t understand the language in which our own laws are written?

Reading has a vital influence on our awareness of the world around us, so why are newspapers and magazines excluded from the curriculum? They will form the bulk of reading for many of the pupils later in life and would stimulate a greater interest in current affairs. With the increasing popularity of online newspapers, blogs and email updates, it would cost a fraction of the price of supplying the entire class with soon-to-be-out-of-date books on the subject. Or just buy a paper and read the stories out loud! Pick breaking stories that will appeal to them, or read out the headlines and get them to pick one. We could get the children to take different sides on issues, have informal debates. Kids enjoy arguing as much as anyone else. And if we used more of these media in schools, publishers would be falling over each other to supply more relevant and entertaining material. We could make reading more integral to everyday life and the kids wouldn’t have to learn about the workings of their society in history class.

For some readers, and particularly for boys, books offer not just the enjoyment of reading, but also a means of doing things. Even apart from publications that offer facts, news, instruction or the like, boys will often care less about how a book is written and more what it is written about. Lads who couldn’t care less about the heart-breaking story of a child with a terminal illness might be moved to tears by the story of Shackleton’s survival in the Antarctic. They will seek out stories about things they enjoy doing, or would like to do in the future, or cannot do because they’re unable to… or because society will not permit it.

And of all the vices, society is least tolerant of violence – unless it can be labelled ‘war’, of course – and not many of us end up as cops or soldiers or spies or gangsters or assassins, so that is what boy readers want most of all; stories about exciting experiences they will never have. And if they don’t find it in books, they’ll find it elsewhere.

But it’s in books that they will get the most thorough experience. Books will give them time and detail that other media will not. Books will let them soak it in at their own pace. And the inherent maturity that comes with learning to read means they will become more discerning towards these experiences. They will eventually seek out better description, more evocative language, a more perceptive view of things. Better writing. Or they might not. And that’s fine too.

If they are shown the violence they’re begging for, and if it is portrayed realistically, rather than in cartoon or game form, and they are shown it in the wider context that the scope of a good story will allow, they will become more receptive to the consequences of that violence. We can instil in them a more mature attitude towards it. But we can’t do any of this if we insist on differentiating their favourite genres of books from those we consider more ‘worthy’, with the implication that they are ignorant if they don’t agree. So they look for role models who suit their view of the world, others who’ve turned away from education in favour of more immediate gains. And in doing so, the idea is reinforced that those who can, do; those who can’t… read.

I am absolutely not against teaching the classics in school (I can hear the cries of ‘Dumbing down!’ already), I want boys kids reading more classics, not less. But I am against their being placed above every other form of reading. They are one in a range of options in the development of literacy – and as it is, by shoving them down tender young throats, we are doing to classic texts what we in Ireland have done to the Irish language. We’re creating resentment.

Yes, a good teacher can inspire enthusiasm, and enthusiastic readers will always look for more sophisticated writing. But there is a big difference between teaching English literature and instilling the love of reading that will sustain it and encourage the next generation of writers – not to mention ensuring that every child leaving school can actually read.

Surely a story should be judged on its ability to engage and affect the reader? Instead, we often blame the reader for not being affected. For not liking what we want them to like. How, then, can we blame them for turning away?