Since acquiring an eReader last year, my reading habits seem to be developing into a new pattern, whereby I tend to download and read novels from the screen, but continue to buy non-fiction titles, graphic novels and – an increasing obsession – cookery books, in paper format. I suppose the most obvious reason is the tactile quality of many of these latter texts – I’m thinking of titles like Shaun Tan’s The Arrivals or Chris Ware’s Building Stories which is literally a book in three dimensions – but there is often, too, something about the physical weight or heft of a book in your hand which, in the case of many cookery books for example, suggests bounty or treasure – you feel as if you are getting something for your money. These are the texts for which the word ‘book’ now seems a bit inadequate, for often they are indeed artefacts or works of art.
However, sticking with novels for the moment, once you have become a fiction addict you are always on the lookout for that next fix, and I recently enjoyed a great novel called Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk by Ben Fountain. As it happens I was on Twitter when I spotted this tweet from Jamie Byng of Canongate, who published the book, and was intrigued enough to favourite it for later reference. A quick look at the reviews on Amazon confirmed that it was ‘my kind of book’, so I downloaded a sample to my Kindle and was reading it within minutes. How the magic of technology has improved and enhanced our reading habits in recent years, particularly that facility to read a sample before we decide whether we want to read the whole text or not.
“@Jeff_Daniels: Reading a scorchingly good novel. BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK. Great to see that Ben’s band of evangelists grows & grows
— Jamie Byng (@baddabyng) June 25, 2013
None of that would have happened though, I guess, if I wasn’t already a reader. How I became a regular reader is a long story – much longer than any novel – which started way back in primary school, when the Friday afternoon ‘treat’ of silent reading wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but suited me just fine, thank you very much. The generous class library, which comprised most of Enid Blyton’s prodigious output, Just William in every imaginable situation, a smattering of Jennings and Derbyshire and W.E. John’s handlebar-moustached hero Captain Biggles, held a seductive enough range of material with which to escape the classroom for a couple of otherwise dreary hours. For a boy growing up in a semi-rural working-class West of Scotland community, the main attraction of the stories was the excitement of exploring other worlds, a virtual travel agency if you like, which is exactly what reading does.
It is through reading, and especially through fiction, that we are able to journey, for a while, alongside people who are not like us.
You can perhaps understand then why my heart sinks every time I hear teachers discussing which novel (often singular) they will be ‘teaching’ students this year. I don’t blame them (I was that teacher once), but the exam-driven system which has brought them to this state of affairs. I too spent many hours in the classroom – this time as a teacher – pulling apart some great novels to look at how you might squeeze them into the straitjacket of a particular essay question. It was a system designed for a minority of students who would study literature at university, and it doesn’t have to be that way.
Imagine an education system where young people read an increasing number of books year on year, and keep on doing so long after they leave school, rather than, in many cases, abandoning the practice as soon as they are no longer ‘made to read’. Imagine if the culmination of your efforts as a teacher, and the measure of your success was not exam results but the number of lifelong readers you had helped to create. Imagine, if in their final year, the task you set the class was not to write a ‘critical essay’, which in all likelihood most of them will never have to do again, but to complete a group investigation something like the one below. Imagine the opportunities that would present, the reading that could be done, the fun you could have together, and the gift you could pass on to future generations.
Final Year Reading Task
What is the origin of the novel as a storytelling form, and why does it remain popular today?
What novels would you say every young person should read?
What features would you say are common to all the novels you (as a group) have read?
What distinguishes a successful novel from an unsuccessful novel, and is ‘successful’ the same as good?
Why should we read novels written in previous centuries?