Why Reading Still Matters

Photo by Ashley Welling Photography

I recently heard someone claim that “We live in a post literate society.” The wound I received from slamming my forehead down on the table has mostly healed, and I would now like to tell you about my passion for reading.

First, to characterize our growing technical expertise with social media, video, and virtual 3D worlds as the inevitable replacement of the written word is akin to saying that each evolutionary step in the development of new musical genres has logically led to the replacement or death of the genre that came before it. At last check, classical music is alive and well and still at the heart of informing the explosion of jazz, rock, R&B, and the more modern forms my daughters love, but I choose to ignore.

Michael Ridley, a librarian at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada and professor of an online class on Post Literacy, claims that the movement from oral storytelling to the written word meant the death of human kind’s oral tradition. And yet you can find countless counterexamples online that share our ever-expanding storytelling skills in forms ranging from hip-hop music to TED Talks. Technology hasn’t supplanted oral storytelling; it has expanded its popularity by providing a better means to share it.

And as it turns out, skillful oral storytelling is at the heart of good reading instruction, and reading skills can help us better understand more modern forms of media. To say that we are past an oral tradition and now moving beyond a written tradition is to miss the point entirely. The joy and purpose of both storytelling and reading are profound and far-reaching.

The written word is a dense expression of our lives and experiences. It is a means of sharing universal truths across both physical distance and the distance of time. It can bridge cultural and generational gaps. I may frequently disagree with David Brooks’ conservative politics, but I find his book, The Social Animal, thoughtful, inspiring, and accurate. The result? I develop more patience with political discord and I am more able to talk with folks that lean farther “right” than I do.

My push back on “Post Literacy” does not mean I am a Luddite who thinks that more modern forms of communication are inherently bad. I do feel that tech is increasingly seen as an easier way to absorb information compared to reading a book. Easier does not equate to better. We need the skills gained during the struggles inherent in learning to read. Picasso didn’t start with cubism, or Guernica. He began by mastering skills that gave him a technical proficiency at a young age that resulted in paintings that were nearly photorealistic. Then he challenged himself to go further, and began producing art unlike anything the world had ever seen, but he never claimed future artists shouldn’t develop fundamental skills.

Unlike Picasso, my early engagement with the art of reading was hardly inspiring or proficient. I was an undiagnosed dyslexic, who was a “bad speller,” a slow reader (still last to finish anything a group is reading together), and a poor writer.

It turns out my dyslexia was a gift in disguise. I grew up in a household where the kitchen table was the campfire around which our family gathered to engage the enmeshed worlds of reading and storytelling. I didn’t know it at the time, but my mother knew no one was going to help me with my reading issues in 1970. They were going to put me on short yellow buses that would take me to “special ed” classes that weren’t very “special” at all. So, I grew up reading everything aloud at the kitchen table. She read to me while I took painful notes. She answered countless questions I asked as I read. She shared stories and related her life to what we read. I read to her while she cooked and learned to see myself in the story, or the history, or the science text as she had modeled for me.

Despite all that reading, my dyslexia never allowed me to read any faster than I could when I read aloud. Our school system assigned workloads that assumed a silent reading speed that was significantly faster than my oral reading speed. How did I manage? I guessed and inferred. I read the summary, or the Cliff Notes first. I read the opening and closing sentence, paragraph, or page. I connected the missing dots like a detective and then guessed at what was coming next like a fortuneteller.

As I learned much later, I was becoming an outstanding active reader who was developing the habit all teachers strive to cultivate in their students. I was learning to see inanimate books as teachers, storytellers, historians, and scientists that I could interact with. I was incredibly slow and I couldn’t spell my way out of a paper bag, but I wasn’t passive. The mental focus and concentration needed to do this certainly had its costs. After long reading sessions I looked like I had two black eyes from a losing effort with the school bully. As a result I never read for “pleasure” until 6th grade.

6th grade was elementary school in the 1970’s. We had some kind of fundraiser at my school where we bought tickets for activities like musical chairs that rewarded the winner with a homemade chocolate cake. I remember winning one round and being given a choice: take the offered cake or choose an item from the “gift table.” I looked over the gift table and found something I would never have predicted choosing: a collection of books from an author I knew only by reputation from a movie I had recently seen. Before me were half-a-dozen used paperbacks of my first non-sports hero – Ian Fleming’s James Bond.

I love chocolate cake and would have it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but I chose Bond, James Bond. I read them non-stop. Which is to say, I read them for hours at a time at the kitchen table with Mom or Dad. By the end of the summer, I was reading away from the kitchen table, still slow as molasses, but I was reading on my own. I always returned to the table and shared the latest adventure and harrowing escape. My mother was not a fan of the genre, but she listened, asked questions, and shared connections to her own life where she could. I learned a great deal about my parent’s honeymoon in Bermuda at one point while reading Dr. No. A fire had been lit and she continued to stoke the flames, keeping the campfire going throughout the long night of my teenager years.

A love of science fiction and Isaac Asimov soon followed, mixed with what were the high school classics of the time: Moby Dick, Last of the Mohicans, To Kill a Mockingbird. In college I studied Russian, American, British, and African Literature. The mix of Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Shakespeare, and Achebe took me on intellectual travels I later made a physical reality. And during these “travels,” my reading continued to grow. Driving cross country with a girlfriend, we alternated turns reading Robert Heinlein’s, Stranger in a Strange Land to each other. On river trips, I worked my way through Tolkien’s work by head-lamp on the Colorado river, the Salmon in Idaho, and the Bio Bio in Chile. While teaching English in Bangkok, Thailand for a year, I finished off the collected works of Mark Twain.

Yes, reading is deeply personal for me, but it should be for all of us. If you haven’t read a good book aloud to another, try it. Don’t just read to children or with children, read aloud in the presence of children. Let them witness your experience of the world through literature.

Although we have a variety of other educational goals here at Northwest Educational Services, we continuously strive to infuse passion for reading in every child and adult we have the honor to work with.

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