Pleasure [in reading] is a profound and potent form of attention, a kind of slow thinking.” says Cottrell Boyce, winner of the 2004 Carnegie medal.
And he is right. When picking up a book and scanning through the pages, no words seem to stand it. It all becomes a blur of nonsensical words; incoherent and meaningless.
They also happen to store the majority of human capital, imagination, emotion, history and pretty much every worthwhile thought ever pondered. So, to acquiant our bright young minds with such wonders we invented a ‘little’ thing called close reading.
We sit them down and instruct them how to analyze every single word and sentence in search for a greater meaning. We explain to them the use of metaphors, similes, commas and the difference between colons and semicolons. Meanwhile, they are thinking of GTA San Andreas and how primitive and dull reading is in comparison to Game of Thrones.
Some years later, these same pupils have (hopefully) managed to enter the great halls of adulthood. The hours of classroom boredom have solidified in a single engraved idea in their heads; books aren’t fun.
What they’ve lost is their ability to extract pleasure from the pages. The vehicle from words to emotion, the feeling of immersion in a completely different world. In other words, just about everything that is entertaining about books.
The problem with this isn’t the loss of fun in itself. It is the subsequent indifference and aversion to literature. As explained earlier, the literary world is one that encompasses the entirety of human thought. Which means that there is much to be learned from them.
When you take the fun out of it though, through this repeated small-minded process of close reading, people will not be inclined to get to the knowledge part. After all, it is not only girls who want to have fun. Everyone does.
At this point let me clarify something. Close reading has its merits, and is necessary to a certain degree. The excessive lengths to which it is being used are what create the problem. Surely, in order to understand Hobbes’s Leviathan you need to read every sentence very carefully. But when it comes to say, the Great Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye, what happens is an overly technical analysis of the texts that leaves out the discussion over their true meaning.
Similarly, the scope of this is too extensive. This results in the wrong impression that all books are the same. Ruining Henry James’s “Portrait of a Lady” is no hard task, but when the same system of reading is applied to Catch-22 it creates confusion between the two. We are thus left with would-be readers who refuse to engage with books because they think that “books aren’t for them.” The reality that they’ve missed is that not all books are for them, but some they’d enjoy.
We have forgotten why we use the written word in the first place. Not only to make ideas eternal, but to convey the fascinating read that are other people’s lives, albeit sometimes fictional. Movies and television may do that as well, but the exercise in imagination is the striking difference that makes books worthwhile.
Pick up the copy of “1984” you’ve been meaning to get to for the past 3 years, and prepare for a great night in!
The current academic system has put students of reading, incurring an intellectual and emotional loss on them.