Monday, 18 November 2013

The political convenience of a non-reading culture

 by Kim Reynolds

During the time the Reading Fictions group has been meeting I have had reason to look at attitudes to reading from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century, and it recently struck me that there are some rather disturbing patterns in the way those in power regard reading. These patterns inform how readers are represented in fiction in ways that deserve some attention.

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For many centuries reading was the preserve of a powerful educated minority. Its members largely selected who would or would not be trained to read – normally this was confined to those like themselves that they trusted and admired or those whose skills and services they needed in one capacity or another. Although as can be seen in the example of The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765), from the earliest days of commercial publishing for children many children’s books appear to be dedicated to teaching the young to read, essentially they convey the belief that full literacy in the sense of the ability to engage with and interrogate a wide range of texts is a skill that is not to be trusted to all. In her Preface to The Governess, or little female academy (1749) Sarah Fielding distinguishes between true and false ways of reading. The ‘true Use of Reading’ she explains, is ‘to make you wise and better’. ‘Wiser and better’ is an ambiguous phrase which could mean, among other things, wise enough to know your place, for instance or better able to serve those in authority over you. Or perhaps wise enough to know when reading might prove unsettling and lead to dissatisfaction, disobedience and even rebellion.
Even when universal compulsory education was introduced into schools in England in 1880 it was with a view to providing different levels of literacy, largely on the basis of class. The upper classes (especially upper-class males) received a wide-ranging classical education while workers were taught just enough to help them decode instructions and the Bible. Debates in the British parliament show a clear connection in the mind of the governing classes between reading and insurrection. As the Reading Fictions group has shown time and time again, representations of readers and reading show the legacy of these ideas about who is and is not to be portrayed as a reader. And this brings me to my point.  For all the rhetoric and activity around the importance of teaching young people to read and cultivating the habit of reading in them over recent decades, it continues to be the fact that in terms of printed texts at least, reading skill and stamina are not increasing. Students reading English literature often struggle with long novels, and as families and nations we dedicate time to many activities (particularly sport) but apart from the much-criticised ‘literacy hour’, there has been no attempt to ensure that time is made for reading regularly.
While no government wants to preside over a population that is slipping down the educational league tables, at many levels it is easier to manage a population that reads little and is principally drawn to undemanding recreational reading. This is the unwritten assumption behind much neoconservative thinking: the ‘good’ can be trusted with knowledge and ideas that in the masses are likely to be misused. Arguably changing this state of affairs needs to start by changing how readers are represented – not just in books (most likely to be encountered by a self-selecting group) but in all the other kinds of texts the young encounter.  Let’s hope the current generation of children’s writers will give us some dynamic, charismatic, and heroic readers of all backgrounds, sexes, ages and cultures.

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