Invention: Why We Read

'Reading,' by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1875-1876)

*Preface*

On Inventing

The word “invention” is a great example of how common thought and usage can distort a word’s original meaning to the point that few ever use it in its original context. Invention comes from the Latin verb invenire, which means “to come upon, to discover.” Thus, to “invent” something does not necessarily mean to create it. I can see how the word is used to describe inventors since these people do “discover” things, or at least uses for things, but it is important to remember the word’s original, authentic meaning.

Now, one wouldn’t want to go around saying something like, “I invented five dollars on the floor!” It just doesn’t quite fit in context; the term “discover” is a little too strong to mean simply “finding” something lying on the ground. Instead, the word refers to significant discoveries–newly-found truths that were not previously so apparent. And so, the process of “invention” is literally the process of discovering a hidden truth–be that scientific, personal, or otherwise.

*I*

The Heart of the Matter

Many teachers around the country have adopted what amounts to a “read or else” policy with their students. “Outside reading charts,” for example, require students to read extracurricularly for a grade. The thinking–and it is embarrassingly desperate–is that by requiring students to read, they will hopefully, just maybe, find that they enjoy it. Unfortunately, the stigma of requirement usually eradicates any sense of enjoyment. Traveling, for instance, is generally extremely enjoyable, but if you’re required to travel for your job, familial obligations, etc., you will find that it very quickly becomes burdensome. It is much the same with reading, for if you are required to read, you will find that you do so not for the sake of reading, but rather to fulfill the requirement.

Very few students–even the best English students–can admit that they read for pleasure. Some have been groomed since early childhood to do so, but these are few. Many young people I’ve encountered as an English teacher have even gone so far as to openly, almost proudly, profess their hatred of reading on the first day of class. Whenever I ask why, students always return the same answer: “Because it’s boring.” It’s “boring” to these students, I believe, for two reasons: first of all, these young people have spent a ruinous amount of time in front of TV or computer screens, not participating in any cognitively-stimulating activity but rather passively watching a program or video, or else using debased, abbreviated form of the English language to chat with each. This has made the young people of at least the past few generations demand pleasure immediately, as though they never quite made it out of the id-ridden stage of infancy. This essentially eliminates reading as a source of pleasure for them since reading is rarely immediately gratifying.

Secondly–and perhaps most significantly–students find reading boring because they have been required to read since early childhood. Schools and libraries promote reading for pleasure with trite, unengaging posters that feature celebrities holding books and captions that say, “Read.” Good-looking people and direct commands do not inspire anyone to pick up a book and read because he or she wants to. Every once in a while, Harry Potters and Twilights come along, novels that kids actually do seem to like reading. But the problem there is that the Harry Potter and Twilight books only make kids want to read more Harry Potter and Twilight books; young people will not put down Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and pick up Shakespeare or Dickens, or even sophisticated contemporary writers like Ian McEwan or Cormac McCarthy. Despite the best intentions of teachers and librarians, there is no “quick fix” to turn kids into readers–no amount of propagandistic posters or adventure-ridden YA novels will help them see that reading can be a pleasurable and enlightening experience. Sadly, to these young people, reading is a chore, something akin to cleaning their rooms or taking out the trash, and frankly, “required reading” programs have not helped ease this problem any.

*II*

Great Expectations

Once a reader is able to pick up a book and willingly sustain his or her reading for an extended period of time, he or she will discover what to expect from reading. I think the majority of today’s adamant non-readers fail to connect with books because their expectations of books are skewed: they believe that, like movies and anything else that issues forth from the screen, their comprehension and enjoyment of books should take place immediately, when in fact reading is more like piecing a puzzle together than watching a YouTube video. The willing reader’s expectations should revolve around this notion: they should begin reading a text with the understanding that reading is a process, a piece-by-piece procedure, and that it will not be something they can see, understand, and forget about immediately. It is important for teachers, librarians, parents, young people, and readers around the world to acknowledge that these expectations do not magically appear; rather, the novice reader needs to be directed to them. But for some reason, despite the teaching profession’s best intentions and greatest efforts, these seemingly obvious expectations are all too often overlooked, and instead the focus is placed entirely on the science of reading, on clinical terms like “comprehension” and “reading rate.” While I think comprehension is important to the teaching of reading (I couldn’t care less about reading rate, being a relatively slow reader myself), I also think the reading teacher’s first lesson should be about what to expect from a text. In a culture that increasingly promotes instant-gratification, this is not merely a useful lesson, but a necessary one.

*III*

Speak, Memory

In his meditation on the better (and worse) angels of our nature, Fallen Angels, the venerable Professor Bloom remarks:

Our one authentic sin is impatience: that is why we are forgetting how to read. Impatience increasingly is a visual obsession; we want to see a thing instantly and then forget it. Deep reading is not like that; reading requires patience and remembering. (25)

Indeed, memory is the expert reader’s greatest tool, for without it we cannot perceive archetypes, recall motifs, and ultimately cannot fully appreciate literature. When our id-ridden culture finally gets the better of us and our memories finally vanish, so too will our stories. So it goes.

*IV*

Inventing Ourselves

But our memories have not dissipated yet, and there still exists a culture of millions of what Bloom would call “deep readers.” These practitioners of literary consumption could share with the counter-culture of non-readers and light readers the bountiful rewards for careful reading: first and foremost, there is the strengthening and enlargement of our cognitive and rhetorical capacities. Reading makes us smarter and better spoken. This is particularly true of our classic literature, for reading it requires us to think critically and assiduously and understand sophisticated word choices and syntactical structures. But more significantly, we are rewarded for reading with the invention of ourselves–the discovery of our mortality, of our individuality, of our universality. Sometimes in our readings we find beautiful things, sometimes ugly things, sometimes funny things, sometimes horrifying things. The human soul is a chaotic place, where peaceful, sunlit valleys give way to dark, terrifying chasms; but texts act as maps through this disorderly terrain, authors as tour-guides. We are led to bear witness to our paradoxically altruistic and malevolent capabilities and in the process better understand ourselves and each other. Certainly, some of these maps and tour-guides are more sound and trust-worthy than others, but it doesn’t hurt to read as much as you can in your search for your perfect map.

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One thought on “Invention: Why We Read

  1. When you mention the evil book known as Twilight, all I can think is “A poorly written book like that definetly won’t help to get students reading.” (Trust me, I’m reading Twilight, and a parody of Twilight right now for the school paper, and all i want to do is shoot myself if I read one more poorly written sentence in Twilight.) The plot is terrible, and I feel like a idiot reading it.

    I think students should be exposed to the works of Dickens or Shakespeare at an early age, instead of to books like Harry Potter or Twilight. Either that or we hypnotize them one by one to enjoy reading.

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