Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Are we losing the ‘art of reading’ in the digital age?

by Sylvia Warnecke

Ghana student reading with Worldreader CoFounder David Risher 
Ghana student reading with Worldreader CoFounder David Risher,©Worldreader

When searching sites such as amazon, it is surprising to see the number of recent publications that express anxieties about the ‘loss of reading’. We come across titles such as David Ulin’s The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Readingin an Electronic Age, or Jeff Gomez’ Print Is Dead: Books in our Digital Age. Such titles alone convey a pessimistic rhetoric using terminology of ‘fate’, ‘death’ or ‘loss’. But what are these books really mourning? What are we losing in these ‘distracted times’? 

To find answers, one just has to look for the readers’ comments on these books, which confirm that authors as well as readers seem to find it difficult to pinpoint this sense of loss when they amalgamate the written word, print, reading, time, silence, distraction and many ‘feelings’ in one equation. S Riaz, one of Ulin’s readers, asks: “With so many things competing for our time, is there still a place for books in our life?” and gives an interesting answer: “[Ulin] is not overly negative, but he is quick to point out the delights of 'real' books over ereaders and to say he dislikes the 'grey' uniformity of the kindle screen. […]I have to disagree with him. I find reading my kindle as engaging as reading a book and a useful tool for having many books with me when I travel." Las cosas’ comment adds to the impression that Ulin’s argument might have missed rather than hit the nail on the head: “I also found his argument for reading too meandering, too filled with personal stories. One problem with the internet is that it is too easy to wander off subject, to flit on the surface of endless topics. It is thus ironic that this book suffers from the same problem.” Andrew Stauffer reveals another contradiction in our anxieties about reading when commenting on Birkerts’ text: “[He] doesn't approve of what you're doing right now. Reading (or writing) an on-line review of his recent book, is like discussing an exercise program over hot fudge sundaes: we are participating in the burgeoning electronic culture that Birkerts urges his readers to resist.” And Stephen Bishop highlights that Gomez: “gets seriously confused between whether it is books as printed objects which are dead, or the habit of reading books which is in decline - and would still be so if all books were on e-readers.”

Many recent studies of children’s reading habits focus on similar anxieties and their findings reveal similar confusions. Scholastic’s The Kids & Family Reading Report is one such example exposing apparently conflicting messages: “Half of children age 9-17 say they would read more books for fun if they had greater access to ebooks – a 50% increase since 2010. […] Eighty percent of kids who read ebooks still read books for fun primarily in print [and] fifty-eight percent of kids age 9-17 say they will always want to read books printed on paper even though there are ebooks available (a slight decline from 66% in 2010).” Yet, even these slight changes “reveal the digital shift in children’s reading that has begun.” This discovery is clearly mirrored in the results of a National Literacy Trust survey published in May 2013, which found that for the first time children read more on digital devices than using print media. The development is coupled with parents’ worries about a decline in their children’s reading skills and enjoyment in reading. The NLT study findings contradict those made by Scholastic that reading on screens has a positive impact on the young readers’ enjoyment, although it appears that there is yet another area of blurred boundaries. This is the distinction between reading as a skill and reading as a way of engaging with stories. 

Uncertainty among adults about the implications of this ‘digital shift in reading’ causes apprehensions that go hand in hand with a strong sense of loss when it comes to print books. The BBC 2 broadcast Books: the Last Chapter in late 2011 sparked much debate and was labelled over-nostalgic when lamenting the disappearance of the print book. Many claimed this approach misses the ‘real issue’, the fact that the media we use for communication of our ideas define and shape our society. Theartdesk review states: “Obviously, the object that is the book has a diminished future but the words, the content, will always survive whatever the medium of delivery. […] It’s easy to disagree with McLuhan’s maxim that society is shaped more “by the nature of the media by which men communicate than the content of the communication”. But seeing a row of tablet readers being stared at on an underground train causes a jolt.”

So what many are lamenting appears to be the loss of an artefact they knew well and all the values and emotions attached to it. Yet reading itself has probably never been as wide-spread and manifold as it is today. However, the nature of reading is changing. One of these transformations is the link between the image and the written word that has opened up scope for a multitude of new literary forms. Another is the emergence of the ‘wreader’ who switches between reading and a writing fiction. And a third is highlighted by the immense increase in the number of book clubs, reading circles, literary societies, (fan) communities on- and offline revolving around stories in the widest sense. Writing and reading have become more immediate, and what Gertrude Stein said on the nature of print journalism in 1934 holds true for our communication of stories today: “The reader […]  craves the “feelings” associated with experiencing “happenings,” without which the reader would feel disjointed, out of time; “it is like the sun standing still…. [Y]ou cannot call a day a day if it is not a day if nothing that had been happening has happened on that day.” Therefore, the fact that reading is changing and becoming a more instantaneous, social and sociable experience through the affordances of digital media, it is creating the potential to enhance the impact of stories and their creators in our culture.

Monday, 9 December 2013

The tiresome nature of “good” readers

by Kim Reynolds

I’ve recently been re-reading some of the Puritan stories for children about the deaths of children who have been favoured by God, including the most famous examples featured in James Janeway’s A Token for Children (1671-22). Now that this project has sharpened my focus on how readers are represented, it strikes me that these offer the earliest examples of ambivalent representations of readers in children’s literature. “Ambivalent” might be too kind a term, for there is something deeply disturbing about the way these children – figures we are intended to admire and emulate – read. What they are reading is, of course, the Bible and other “good” books; doing so makes these “good” children who are granted “good” deaths. But even allowing for the distortions of presentism, it is hard not to see these readers are irritating. Let me give you some examples.
Janeway’s third paragon is Mary, “a little Girl that was wrought upon, when she was between Four and Five years Old”. Mary is a great reader, and at several points Janeway describes what and how she reads.
Her book was her delight and what she did read, she loved to make her own […] and many times she was so strangely affected in reading of the Scriptures, that she would burst out into Tears, and would hardly be pacified….
She was very Conscious in keeping the Sabbath, spending the whole time in Reading or Praising, or learning her Catechism, or teaching her Brethren and Sisters…
Mary didn’t just read or confine her teaching to her siblings; she gathered together local children in the neighbourhood and told them how to spend their Sundays. You don’t get any sense that they appreciated her counsel.
Like Mary, most of Janeway’s child paragons are dedicated readers of the Bible who have clearly not mastered the art of silent reading. They weep and groan and expostulate to such an extent that in the case of one little boy who “When he was left at home alone upon the Sabbath days, he would be sure not to spend any part of the day in idleness & Play, but busied in praying, reading in the Bible, and getting of his Catechism,” a neighbour is driven to complain about the way the he is carrying on.

Previously I had assumed that the first question marks about how readers are represented to children were placed around readers who were reading the wrong kinds of texts or reading them in the wrong way, but my return to these very early texts is making me think again….

Monday, 2 December 2013

“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin”

by Maureen Farrell

This contribution drawing attention to the importance of reading aloud follows on from something Prue Goodwin talked about in her input on Margaret Mahy (September 2013) when she reminded us how good Mahy was at celebrating the power of listening to good books read aloud.

  My involvement in the Reading Fictions project has focused on the place of books and reading in young adult fantasy fiction and among the material I’ve focused on is Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart trilogy. In Inkheart, twelve-year-old Meggie discovers that her father Mortimer, a professional bookbinder, has the unusual skill of being able to transfer characters from books into the real world when he reads aloud. Meggie’s father’s ability to read “ almost tenderly, as if every letter were a musical note and any words spoken without love were a discord in the melody” means that even the most hard bitten audience is caught in the thrall of the words on the page. Funke takes the idea further so that the reader in the book has to read the text aloud in such a way that the fantasy is realised not just in the reader’s mind but in reality. Characters are ‘brought into or out of” the books if the passage about them is read aloud.

The importance of reading aloud to children is widely acknowledged both in the classroom and at home. The Secret Garden and Alcott’s Little Women. Then we read War Horse (Morpurgo) and Theresa Breslin’s Remembrance and most recently we finished Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird and both of us found Scout’s first experience of school and a recently qualified teacher very pertinent. Scout arrives at school already able to read because she has read everyday with her father Atticus. The teacher is horrified that Scout (Jean Louise) is able to do this and says Atticus is not to read with her any more – the implication being she’s to forget all the ‘bad habits’ she has been taught at home. How the thinking has changed – one hopes!
Recently however, I have been reflecting on the pleasure adults get from being read to. My elderly mother, a former primary teacher and early years specialist, is now in a care home and her eyesight is so bad she can no longer see to read herself. Consequently I have begun reading aloud to her (and sometimes an uninvited audience of care staff) and have been struck by the pleasure she gets from this. We started with Agatha Christie and then some classics, Frances Hodgeson Burnett’s

Searching around for material to read aloud I came upon a wonderful organisation called The Reader Organisation http://www.thereader.org.uk/ a charitable organisation working to connect people with great literature through shared reading.
Their ‘reading revolution’ targets some of the most vulnerable and excluded people in our society, including prisoners and people in secure forensic psychiatric settings, children in care or excluded from school, and people suffering dementia and severe depression; as well as company employees, library users, students, parents, people entering retirement and those at risk of isolation. They do this through their ‘Get into Reading’ groups which bring people together weekly in read aloud reading groups. Their website has a wealth of valuable information but the readers stories have particular impact.

Recently I was working with a group of one-year secondary English teacher trainees and I used a passage – actually an advertisement for a Pioneer car Hi Fi system – that reads like a Gothic horror story. They were not provided with the text and they were asked to respond to it, generally about whether they were able to identify the purpose of the piece of writing from the generic features. What was surprising was that many of their initial responses centred round how much they had enjoyed being read to and that led on to discussion of the fabulous resources that the digital age gives us access to through iPods, MP3 players, phones and so on. I have friends who swear that Stephen Fry reading the Harry Potter books kept them and their three children fully engrossed when travelling by car from Elgin to London.

Let’s not just keep reading aloud for the primary classroom or for bedtime stories. Sharing the joy of reading through reading aloud is a hugely underused and underestimated approach. So, are you sitting comfortably?.........

Monday, 25 November 2013


by Peter Hunt

We have been looking at examples of images of the child reader in the book, being read by the child reader outside the book – although ‘outside the book’ isn’t really an adequate description of what is going on, because if the book is a success then the reader is, in some strange way, absorbed into the book. But when this happens, and the reader with the book identifies with the reader in the book, how and why does it happen?
One theory was put forward in another classic critical text from the golden age of the unique children’s literature journal Signal - Peter Hollindale’s Signs of Childness in Children’s Books (Thimble Press, 1997). What characterises a successful text for children, Hollindale suggested, was the presence of ‘childness’ – the quality of being a child – and it is a quality that is ‘shared ground … between adult and child.’
He goes on:
I wish to argue … that childness is the distinguishing property of a text in children’s literature … and it is also the property that the child brings to the reading of a text. At its best, the encounter is a dynamic one. The childness of the text can change the childness of the child, and vice versa. On other occasions of reading the encounter is only a mirroring – conservative and confirmatory. 

Hollindale is proposing a wide theory of children’s literature, but is worth borrowing his idea of childness and applying it to our present project. He sees children’s literature as an event, an interaction between child and adult and book – what I have described elsewhere as being the mutually respectful negotiation of the Tom Tiddler’s ground between adults and children. Empathy derives from sharing, and childness, as Hollindale defines it, is the basis for that empathy: ‘For the child, childness is composed of the developing sense of self in interaction with the images of childhood encountered in the world…’ and these naturally include the images of childhood within books – and especially the image of the child reading in books.

Successful reading depends to some extent on empathy: we like what we see when we read. Obviously, childhood changes with time and place, and concepts of childness change at the same time. Similarly, empathy is a very vulnerable concept: a writer who seems empathetic to the needs of children, recognising childness in them and in herself or himself, might seem to some adult readers to be manipulating the concept for her or his own ends (whisper it, as in the Case of Roald Dahl).

Nevertheless, the validation of reading by the presence of reading children in fiction sends a strong empathetic message. And as Hollindale observes, this is uniquely an attribute of the book.
It is precisely the conjunction of exterior with interior action…which gives the children’s book its special place in helping a reader to build and diversify her sense of childhood possibility…. The representation of childhood for children [on film and television] is sparse and incomplete…Children who do not read books are exposed to a fictional life made up almost exclusively of adults. What we see is – to use an ugly word for a fairly ugly phenomenon – the defictionalising of childhood. 

The acknowledgement of shared ‘childness’ through shared, empathetic reading is a powerful antidote to this accelerating trend.

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.

This image taken from: http://abookbutcher.blogspot.com.au/

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.

Thursday, 7 November 2013


by Peter Hunt

The 1970s and 1980s were a golden age for writing about children and reading (if not for  writing  for children), and one of the most remarkable pieces of work was How Texts Teach What Readers Learn (1988) by the remarkable Margaret Meek, first published in Signal. ‘A workshop rather than an essay or a lecture,’ How Texts Teach…  builds on Frank Smith’s dictum that ‘children learn to read by reading’, most importantly by arguing that we learn to read by becoming involved in what we read. Children have often acquired many ‘reader-like behaviours’ before they come to books, the most important of which are recognising patterns and genres, and understanding that reading is a game with rules. All of this may seem a world away from some of the classroom practices of today: ‘what texts teach is a process of discovery for readers, not a programme of instruction for teachers.’ Meek takes as her examples books that collude with developing readers, mirroring within the texts the child’s own acts of reading – notably Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s The Jolly Postman (1986) an exercise in Intertextuality that depends on the characters in the book reading ‘other people’s letters’. 

She cites the frustration that Huck Finn has with Tom Sawyer’s book-based imagination in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – and best of all, the small William in the late (and often inspired) Jan Mark’s ‘William’s Version’ from Nothing to Be Afraid Of  (1980). Reading is (or can be, or could be) an enveloping experience, made all the more seductive by watching a reader in a book struggling with the process. Here is the pre-literate William, teaching his Granny about reading:
                ‘Once upon a time [said Granny] there were three little pigs.                        Their names were –‘
                ‘They didn’t have names,’ said William.

               ‘Yes they did. The first pig was called –‘
                ‘Pigs don’t have names’ … William slid off Granny’s lap and went to open the corner cupboard by the fireplace. Old magazines cascaded out… [William] rooted among them until he found a little book covered with brown paper, climbed into the cupboard, opened the book, closed it and climbed out again. ‘They didn’t have names,’ he said.
                ‘I didn’t know you could read,’ said Granny, properly impressed.
                ‘C-A-T, wheelbarrow,’ said William.

Granny is, of course, forced to bow to the authority of William’s reading of the book (which turns out to be First Aid for Beginners)which perhaps demonstrates just how tricky the question of the reader and the book and the reader in the book can be.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Reading Fictions Symposium Report

By Jennifer Farrar, Soumi Dey, Yan Zheng and Osman Coban (PhD students, School of Education, University of Glasgow)

Try this for a tongue twister: readers like reading about other readers reading. Not tricky enough? What about: reading about reading is as important as reading itself. Okay, so the second one isn’t as much of an alliterative challenge, but it does paraphrase a key point raised by Evelyn Arizpe at the beginning of the day-long Reading Fictions symposium, held in Glasgow in October. Quoting from Maria Nikolajeva’s contribution to the project, Evelyn asked us to consider how readers, the act of reading and books themselves are represented in children’s literature in English. What messages about reading do books bring to the reading process? And, to get all tongue-twisty again, can reading about reading – or even readers reading – have an impact on the way we feel about reading, as readers ourselves?


According to Vivienne Smith, many ‘real’ readers find it flattering to read about the pleasure fictional readers get from books, not simply because it affirms the values that may already be attached to literacy practices, but also because such ‘bookish’ characters are often linked to goodness and virtue.  Are we, as real readers, drawn moth-like to representations of fellow book lovers (even if other characters seem to think they are a bit boring) because we subconsciously connect with their love of books? As Vivienne suggested, are we more likely to empathise with a character-reader when their right to read is removed – as it is for Demetria in Jan Mark’s Riding Tycho (2005), or Felix in Morris Gleitzman’s Once (2005)even if it is only one right among many? Does being a reader intensify the sympathy we would ordinarily feel for their plight? [You’ll have noticed our use of ‘we’ and the automatic assumptions we have made about the readers of this blog.]  Similarly, authors such as Cornelia Funke, who represents books symbolically as keys and weapons, tap into long-held (and highly prized) assumptions about books as repositories of knowledge, as places of intellectual fortitude and endurance. As Maureen Farrell explained during her paper on the representation of reading in young adult fantasy, such texts positively revel in their intertextuality and often draw heavily upon a reader’s metafictive awareness.


But what about those readers who are not already so strongly “book-identified”, to borrow a term from Maureen’s paper: will such self-reflexive texts seem a bit daunting? Or could they possibly inspire wider reading? During her discussion of Leon Garfield’s The Book Lovers (1976), Kimberley Reynolds showed how Garfield’s creation of a character who creates a canon of books about love, all for the purposes of wooing, could at once encourage some readers to broaden their literary horizons, while alienating others.


Linked to this sense of broadening was Julia Eccleshare’s discussion of Jacqueline Wilson, which explored how Wilson’s relationship with her readers is reflected in her books. Several of her texts feature Wilson-like writer-characters, who spend a great deal of time encouraging young people from all kinds of backgrounds to engage with literacy as a meaningful hobby or career choice. As Julia explained, the parallels between Wilson’s real life activities (her commitment to engaging with as many readers as possible) and the values expressed by her writer-characters will not be lost on her fans, who, it would be hoped, might go onto espouse Wilson’s generous and inclusive views on literacy.


Moving further afield, Evelyn’s paper explored a set of books that depict illiterates (both human and animal) as vermin who can only exist on the margins of society. Developing the ability to read within such oppressive conditions can be transformative: the characters are described as filthy until they learn to read, when they become symbolically cleansed. Here, the reader can still be flattered by the presentation of reading as akin to cleanliness, but this time, we must empathise with characters who cannot (yet) read; who are not (yet) members of our reading club. As Evelyn explained, such texts may encourage readers to reflect on a life without access to reading, as well as literacy’s life-enhancing potential.


Similar representations emerged during Jean Webb’s paper on Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2008), where books and reading are linked to freedom, persecution and death. Liesel, who cannot read, goes to sleep with a treasured copy of The Grave Digger’s Handbook under her pillow, a book that she learns to read as the story develops and new relationships form. Her newly-discovered passion for reading comes at a time when books are being burnt in their thousands. Here, books, readers and the act of reading are linked to life-affirming notions of comfort, love and safety within challenging, changing times.


Of course, changing times can mean changing text types, as Sylvia Warnecke explored during her paper on digital fictions. Teaching digital texts like Inanimate Alice, could provide teachers with exciting opportunities to discuss what counts as reading: after all, the texts that Alice seems to derive most comfort from are the ‘texts’ sent to her by a friend via his mobile device. The discussions linked to this paper raised interesting questions about how different types of reading are perceived, and how they may be embraced in a modern classroom.


So, it would seem that we all agreed that, as readers, reading about reading is important because of the powerful messages it can convey. And indeed, what better place to start reading about reading than in the early years, with contemporary picturebooks. As Morag Styles and Mary Ann Wolpert demonstrated during their whistle-stop tour of the genre, metafictive texts such as Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The Stinky Cheeseman and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992) riotously exploit (and explode) assumptions about how, where and why we read. Not only that, but they are hilarious too.


Papers from the Symposium are to be published in an edited volume, more details on this when available.