Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Questions of Quality in Reading

In education, we aim in summary at two comprehensive ends for all learners. The two goals are the fulfillment of human potential and the attainment of humanity’s cultural heritage. Certainly potential and heritage, being vast and complicated, are long-term and seldom fall nicely and completely into place for any individual educator during their temporary time with the learner. Further, since the individual psyche thrives on its own individuality, no educator can actually command learning. Rather, education as a life process needs first to be won and then gradually surrendered to the self-direction of the learner. Never mind that the human potential and the human heritage are mutual; everyone has to sort out the intricacies of these particular relationships for themselves.

Reading, nevertheless, is central to the process of learning and has the principle virtue of being an educational engine in itself that is more diverse, more companionable, and more lasting than any other single educator.

From a practical point of view, the existence of so many million books pressures each reader to spend their time on the select few titles most beneficial to themselves. ‘Select few,’ means a few thousand compared to sixty million trade editions since the invention of printing.[1] Select reading always exists thanks to the reading choices every reader necessarily makes. Choice is inescapable and exists along a continuum from refusal to read or inattention to reading – each no better than the inability to read – all the way to the most active and dedicated of lifetime reading plans.

People make choices beneficial to themselves in lots of different ways. Hopefully, their reading selections develop along the lines of informed and judicious selections. Still the process of making productive choices can be difficult and full of challenges. For some, obstacles discourage reading and block the way to exercising choice. Parents, teachers, library and media professionals are all educators who work to overcome and remove obstacles for the benefit of the learner in their charge.

Learners can be educated as to the options in their choices, but not all with the same realization or to the same extent.[2] Not all learners become readers in the same way or at the same level. Whatever our desires that every person learn, every learner read, and every reader excel, likely no society has ever had a preponderance of readers in any full sense. Take together considerations of deliberate, planned, regular, persistent, serious and deep reading, and you will find few that measure up to this totality. Still we try to do the most we can amidst the whole population. At the height of reading achievement are those readers who become writers.[3]

Questions of what reading is worth seek some foundation of what is meaningful enough to win and hold potential readers. Many are the values offered on behalf of reading’s importance: reading engages, reading extends beyond experience; reading transmits heritage; reading plumbs the depths of being. In every value named, reading goes beyond bare humanity, humanity in association with others, and humanity as lived. Reading enriches; that is the short of it. At least, such a claim is reading’s promise and potential.

Of course, reading is non-existent without readers, and through each of those previously valued interactions, the reader discovers and experiences each value as known and made real. Yet each transaction between reader and text differs. When two or more get together to compare responses and understandings as to what they have read, they discover their varying readings. It is the same text, exactly, but the reading experience is not the same for everyone. Further, the experience upon successive readings is not the same, especially as the years go by. As readers age, mature, and change, they will not bring their same selves to the text each time.

I read Baum’s Oz books when I was ten years old, lucky to find them in my small town public library. At that time, critics already considered the Oz books as mediocre because they doomed any series to be questionable merit. Later in life, the children’s literature class I took surprised me: I learned how poor Baum was considered to be. I wondered how this could be since I especially remembered some of the titles very fondly. Fifty years after my first reading, the year 2000 was the centennial of The Wizard of Oz, and Baum once again enjoyed the passing attention of the day. I decided then to re-read or read new all his books. Seeing them as an aged critic myself, I noted their general unevenness and several flaws. But at their best, those that had been my favorites in 1950 were still my favorites despite the decades.

Out of fourteen Oz novels that Baum wrote over a twenty-year period, three titles emerged in my estimation as better than the rest—The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), The Emerald City of Oz (1910), and The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913). What I admired about these three from the intervening perspective of reading hundreds of novels, myths, legends, fairytales, and works of fantasy and science fiction was Baum’s √©lan that breathed itself into the achievement of each favored book. These three are truly innovative and Baum does not copy himself, except as to the background that grows richer. The characters are ingeniously individual, robust, and likeable. Baum shows great humor and delectable irony. The stories come to surprising and satisfactory endings that contribute to the environment of the whole series. While Baum entertained and amused me when I was ten, at sixty he gave me a finer aesthetic enjoyment with the same texts. To me this makes unarguable that reading is a unique experience for every individual at every time of their reading.[4]

The particular learning I have come to over the decades of reading a great deal of varied texts is that a person comes to prize some works over others because they are better. “Better” means that some books demonstrate ”qualities” or ‘characteristics that qualify’ them in such a way or ways as to set them apart from the general mass of readily available reading material. The qualities speak to or evidence the particular values that the reader has come to hold in some kind of hierarchy. Just as the reading experience varies with the reader, judgments of quality are also going to vary. Popularity, timeliness, excitement, consciousness-raising, the attraction and relevance of any of the numerous disciplines of knowledge, and the pursuit of hard or theoretical truths all have their appeal. The book market is alive with variables from the blockbuster bestseller to the most abstruse treatise, and they all find their audiences, however mammoth or minute those audiences may be.

Critics, mostly of the professional variety, based on their preferred aesthetic or critical theory, will argue that certain named works are good, less good or otherwise lesser all the way to bad. Choosing-up sides as to good and bad books is a human activity; everyone likes to be on the good side, the right side. Certainly, criticism has its values when it provides tools for looking at texts and helping to evaluate them, but no criticism is the textual work in itself. Always, the piece of literature must speak for itself and not through the filter of someone else’s criticism.

As we educators go beyond the mechanics of reading to the content of reading, we take various approaches to point to the merits of literature so that maturing readers use those sample qualities as they will, may or can in making their own judgments. Given the difficulty of imposing standards of right and wrong in anything, let alone reading taste, let us examine the use of good examples and model behavior, a method whose sanction is as old as Aristotle.

First, give heed to wise old Montaigne. His father had Montaigne’s tutors submerse the infant in Latin and allowed no spoken French within earshot until by the age of six the child had gained such proficiency in the language that the only way to test him was to require him to turn bad Latin into good. This Montaigne, whose essays have set the standard for that genre, said,[5]

Teachers are for ever bawling into our ears as though pouring knowledge down through a funnel: our task is merely to repeat what we have been told. I would want our tutor to put that right: as soon as the mind in his charge allows it, he should make it show its fettle by appreciating and selecting things – and by distinguishing between them…

Bees ransack flowers here and there: but then they make their own honey, which is entirely theirs and no longer thyme or marjoram. Similarly the boy will transform his borrowings; he will confound their forms so that the end-product is entirely his; namely, his judgment, the forming of which is the only aim of his toil, his study and his education.

Readers are of two kinds, those that are nurtured and those that read despite nurturing or the lack of it. Nurturing is the only thing that we can hope to have any control over. As far as early reading is concerned, there is little substitute for oral tradition from early childhood, or in the womb, as some say, and for parents and other family members reading to children. Happy and productive is the family that adopts a routine reading ritual. All this telling and reading to children, which is likely continued, supplemented and expanded in schools and at public libraries, has an aim. We aim to exemplify reading in its humanness, pleasure and cognitive content prior to and alongside unraveling the mechanics.

The aim of the mechanics of reading is that learners become able to read on their own and to pursue their own reading as they will. Primary school readers move beyond their first books and begin to fill out reading wheels with a growing variety of literature types. They distinguish poetry, fairy tales, biographies, and other kinds of fact books from one another. They are learning the bases of the structures of literature as they discover them.

Such discovery learning is not new; you can find it in Socrates. When I left college in the early 1960s, instead of the whole class reading the same text, some English teachers had their classes read half a dozen novels divided among the students. The class then discussed what makes the novel a novel as they reached for the elements common to those six titles. I’ve never found such methods very widespread; whatever the virtues of this discovery system, it requires more preparation of the teacher and expects more attention from the students. Serafini warns of the dangers, difficulties, and experience required on the part of teachers and students to conduct such profitable examinations. I recommend his article highly.[6]

Mostly what Serafini warns about is the omnipresent possibility of the teacher insisting on his reading of the text as the correct reading. The same thing may happen in stifling student discovery in a study group activity where some students dominate others or students as a group seek to discern the mind of the teacher and please that one in charge. Searafini worries too that the current emphasis on high stakes testing is inimical to students developing their critical senses and their examination of quality measures in what they read. These judging skills are marked down as of little importance in the tests or are not easily tested.

Of course, school media and public librarians are in excellent positions to do a lot for younger readers in their development of strong reading habits and developmental reading abilities. It always seemed to me as I was growing up that I was the fortunate one of the gods because I had the same two personal librarians from birth to age eighteen, and both of them knew me. One was in the public library and the other in the public school. They always showed great interest in what I was reading, were ready to exchange a few words or a lot of words about what I read, and with greater acumen than Amazon or Netflix does today could recommend other items of interest to me and answer my questions. As time went by, they set books aside for me that they knew I would like. The public librarian even broke the state rules and requested interlibrary loan for me even though in those days this service was not available to children.

I think it was those dyadic conversations at the check-out desk that made all the difference for me in my life. I was always fortunate to always find more books I wanted to read than I could read. The pervading idea that books are wealth proved inescapable. I came to realize, likely after high school, that I had learned more from reading books from the library and those of my own purchase, than I had from textbooks, class time or and from all my teachers. This concept may be a dangerous one, but I found it unavoidable. My range of ideas, attitudes, knowledge and habits had come from books, not from classrooms. To me the books, especially the ones I favored and continued to think about, seemed the most determinative.

Many books go out of date and lose appeal when readers grow as suspicious of their worn exteriors as their fallible contents. Best sellers peak and pale; you can look at the history of bestsellers over the history of the United States and see the vast numbers of titles that once attracted the highest interest. Most of them have few readers today. Yet some books have long staying power, not for everyone necessarily but for some respectable readership. To attract readers and bolster them with quality examples, the challenge becomes to acquire for their choosing most of the best that one can. You cannot dictate readership, but you can enable it by concentrating on quality in selection.

Quality evidences itself in two principal ways. One is the extrinsic quality of affect, that is, certain books pull at and impress certain readers in ways that by emotional result touch or change them. The other is the intrinsic quality of construct; the way the message, as delivered, becomes appreciable in itself. These two kinds of qualities are not mutually exclusive, though they vary in proportion. Many readers seek affect; fewer construct. And it is easy to relish the affect of, say, To Kill a Mockingbird, even when you are twenty, as I was, and miss the construct until later, or to be overwhelmed by the construct in Huckleberry Finn and miss the affect until later. Alas, many of us are not mature enough to absorb a book as we might just because we have read it before were ready to appreciate it.

Often I worry about Silas Marner and other dreaded “classics,” which so many of us in my generation had to read and hated. Well, ‘no literature was ever written to be studied.’ (I believe I paraphrase Winston Churchill.) What would those of us in the silent generation think now if we read George Eliot again? At about 200 pages, Silas Marner doesn’t take long to comprehend.
© 2009 by Roger Sween

I welcome substantive comments on the contents of this blog. Personal comments may be made to me at the email address above.

[1] See my calculations in “The Reader as a Self-Directed Learner,” Update newsletter (August 1999) 5-10.

[2] Robert Scholes in The Crafty Reader (2001) discusses ways in which readers gain the abilities to decode and follow the crafts that authors employ in different genres and styles of literature.

[3] Compare “Why Bother?” aka “The Harper Essay” (1996) by Jonathan Franzen in How to Be Alone: Essays (2002).

[4] See also two others who have written extensively on their childhood and youthful reading: Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life (1997) and Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built (2002).

[5] Michel de Montaigne, “On Educating Children,” The Complete Essays I:26 (M. A. Screech) 1991, p.169, 171.

[6] F. Serafini, “Getting Beyond ‘I like the book’: Impediments to Quality Literature Discussions.” 2/13/05. http://serafini.nevada.edu/WebArticles/Lit/LitDiscussions.htm.