I’ve got a beautiful edition of ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce on my bookshelf: a proud hardback, a deep green, title and author in gold. I bought it in the Dublin Writers Centre, typically touristy, and the date is written on the inner sleeve. It’s an important date, almost, as, the day after, I made my one and only marriage proposal. And there are fewer more important books than ‘Ulysses’: based on The Odyssey, the book tells the tale of one day in Dublin, told through a stream of consciousness, ending in a rather fruity monologue from the main character’s wife. It’s a great book. Probably. It’s just that I’ve never read it.
And even if you have read it, and I’ll bet you probably haven’t, I would doubt there was anything in my summary you’d have added to. Like the aging copy of ‘Moby Dick’ two shelves down. A huge epic tale of Captain Ahab’s search for the whale which took his leg. Long, long stretches of the book go into detail about the bone structure of the whale, the detail is incredible. Herman Melville ended up working in Liverpool Docks, unaware in his lifetime that his book would ever be read. But I have read this one. However, again, you could probably have told me all about it even if you hadn’t.
So, if after reading a book you can barely share more about it than someone who hasn’t read it, what is the point of reading it then? If the cultural capital you glean from the great books is barely more than the blurb, why should I waste another month reading ‘War and Peace’ or ‘David Copperfield’ if I already know the story? And, for young people, why would they now read the Harry Potter series if they can watch all eight(?) movies in a much shorter space of time.
In my own book, ‘Reading for Pleasure: A Passport to Everywhere’ – you have read it, haven’t you?- I included a whole series of strategies, activities, ideas, which often help us to submerge young people in reading. They’ve all worked for me at some point over the years but I hoped that the main ideas coming through were bigger than mere strategies. I wanted to make the point that the only way we can really get children to read is to give them time to sit in silence and develop the habit. Everything else is just window dressing if we can’t do that.
In a world where it seems unforgivable that young people should ever be, gulp, ‘bored’ then perhaps we do them a disservice by not teaching them the value of how to sit silently in quiet contemplation with a book. It’s not ‘sexy teaching’: your school won’t place a photo of it on the website or Twitter feed. But if we want them to become readers, if we want them to be able to deal with those quieter moments, if we want them to begin to accept ‘boredom’ as a normal part of life, then it is necessary.
There is much evidence to suggest that becoming a reader is transformational. The research is fairly conclusive that being a reader is beneficial. Haven’t actually read most of it though…