Thursday, February 17, 2011

Reading as a skill vs reading as a form of social positioning

All too often I hear or read people complaining that "kids today" don't read enough. I admit that I am wont to suspect that these individuals themselves are not great readers. Why? Because they speak of "reading" in such a way that I doubt they appreciate reading as a skill.

Reading, and the books we read, seems often to be as much about social positioning as it is about learning or gaining anything from the book read. Perhaps the most obvious example of a book whose main purpose is to be seen rather than to be read is the coffee-table book. 

When I, as a child, first heard of coffee-table books I was confused and perplexed at the very idea. In my world books existed to be read. Because my parents were frugal most of the books we read were borrowed from the local library. I visited the library on Saturday and came home with an armful of books.  I took my books to my room and was very careful never to leave a book lying on the coffee table since odds were it would be grabbed by the first member of my family who wandered through the room and thus end up in their room on their pile of books. We went to the library almost every Saturday and every visit I went into the building with my arms full of books I had read and I left the building with my arms full of books I was going to read.

My experience growing up was that books were things you read not things you wanted other people to think that you had read so the idea that one would buy a book not to read but to adorn one's coffee table made no sense to me.  When first I visited homes where such books were found I inadvertently embarrassed people by asking about the book since I presumed that if the book was on the table they were reading it and if they were reading it they would enjoy talking about it. This was not, I soon discovered, something that those who display coffee-table books like to do--or at least they don't like doing it if the discussion ventures far beyond what they themselves could have gathered from reading the blurbs on the back of the book and the New York Times book review.

What does this have to do with the subject line of this post? I think that many people who talk about reading and praise reading and want their children to do more are themselves very poor readers else they would not describe and discuss books as they do.

Reading is a skill. Not just learning to read as children do but READING seriously and thoughtfully as an adult. It needs to be taught well and it needs to be practiced. Left unused the skill will rust away and yet we may not realize that we have become unskilled at READING because we are still able to read. We can read the labels on the tins at the grocery store. We can read the roadsigns as we drive along. But we are no longer READING we are reading and books have ceased to become things we READ they are objects that we use to position ourselves socially.

If owning a book becomes an evidence of social position then the books themselves both gain and lose power. They gain because they are invested with talismanic powers. Parents will at the same time complain that their children are not reading and that their children are being exposed to the wrong type of books. They complain about their children learning the wrong facts--not because the facts are "wrong" but because knowledge of those facts might lead to what the parents consider the wrong conclusions. If those parents were truly in favour of teaching READING skills then they would not be in fear of books or facts since their children would have the skills necessary to check the facts and weigh the arguments put forward in the book.

Books also lose power when what is actually written gets lost as people worry about what owning that book says about their own social position and what having read the book says about them as thinkers and what having liked about the book says about them as people. The book becomes part of one's own social presentation and thus criticisms of the book are perceived as criticisms of oneself.

If reading the book allows me to maintain my chosen social presentation but READING the book undermines the book's value as a talisman of that social place then READING becomes the enemy of book.


  1. I cannot tell you how many times this scenario happened when I was a teen librarian:

    Parent (sometimes with embarrassed teen in tow): Can you suggest some good books for my teen to read?

    Me (looking at teen if present): "What sort of things do you like?" (or "he/she like" if teen not present)

    Parent: "Oh, I don't want him/her to read that trash. I want him/her to read GOOD books, real literature."

    Me: "Ah. And what do YOU read?"

    Parent: [if I'm lucky] "Oh, you know, Danielle Steel / Clive Cussler / James Patterson / etc."
    [Far more common] "I don't really read much. That's why I'm asking the librarian!"


  2. I certainly know people who worry about what they should put on their bookshelves in case it makes them look stupid.

    Being fair, as a 150-book-a-year 'drake, I do talk about reading and praise reading and would worry if my hypothetical offspring were not as enthused about reading as I. Books have been good to me...

  3. I grew up in a house with a library. Actually, several houses - we moved a lot. When we moved, the boxes of books outnumbered the boxes of anything else.

    Our current book collection is not quite to that extent yet, but I'm younger than my father was when he started moving us around, too, and my wife contributes to the collection, while my mother has always struggled to be a voice of restraint in that regard.

  4. I grew up in a house with a library. Actually, several houses - we moved a lot

    Growing up 'in the military' we were rather discouraged from collecting large numbers of anything since one's father might get posted anytime and to a place with far less room for storage.

    At the same time I now realize (ah, hindsight makes us so wise!) that even though I felt that we had comparatively few books we still had far, far more than did most people.

    My sister and I each, for example, had several hundred books. And my mother had probably as many. My father kept comparatively few but he reads all the time. The trick is -- he remembers almost everything. He isn't a great re-reader. But he loves reading. Dad only doesn't go to the library every week if he is very ill or my mother was. So when mom was dying my sister and I brought different books with us every day because he spent hours and hours by her bedside. Books were his companions in those long hours.

  5. Among science fiction fans in the UK, there are said to be three metalevels of book collection:

    (1) You measure your collection by the number of books.

    (2) You measure your collection by shelf-feet.

    (3) You measure your collection by weight, and get extra surveys done when moving to a new house.

  6. When the spousal unit and I moved from our starter home to the one we now live in one of the main factors driving our "buying up" is that we had run out of space for our books.

    One layer of paperbacks was shelved in front of another on many shelves -- with additional books squeezed in above.

    Because we sold our house with an extremely small window between sale and closing date we actually hired a company to pack for us.

    So, the fellow comes in to do the estimate. Gives it to me. I hand it back saying, there is no way in the world you are going to get all of our books into that few boxes. He gave me that "I know better than you do" look and assured me that it would be easy. I demanded that he write on the estimate sheet that I had warned him and that we would hold him to the estimate.

    Of course on moving day they had to use far more boxes than planned
    1) cause they had underestimated the volume of books
    2) cause books are heavy and if they filled their 'normal' boxes with books the boxes collapsed when picked up.

    It took at least double the number of boxes estimated to pack our books.

    I held them to the estimate.

    Oh, and yes the estimator did look around the room and ask me "have you read all these books?"

  7. mmy, I find that particular question especially irrelevant when they're looking at the Encyclopaedia Britannica, OED, and other reference works...

    My experience of movers in the UK is that they have special small book boxes, and that they have a fair idea of how much will go into one.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.