Research on reading habits often tells us that many children stop reading when they start their teens. In this regard, a debate took place in Spain about whether the solution would be to provide less difficult and less old works for students to read. But it is doubtful that children are made good readers by taking them easy.
Recently, journalist Ignacio Zafra commented on some data compiled in the last five years by the Federation of Editors’ Guilds of Spain, according to which the percentage of frequent readers between 15 and 14 years falls, compared to to those from 14 to 14 years old, from 77% The 53%. The usual explanation for this drop points to the turbulence typical of age and the increasing use of cell phones, among other reasons. Furthermore, he added the hypothesis of the study “Youth and Reading 2022”, by the Germán Sánchez Ruipérez Foundation: the way literature is taught in schools and institutes distances books from young readers.
Reading, a qualitative phenomenon
Before commenting on a few things, perhaps we should ask whether statistics, such a useful tool for quantitative questions, bring light for realities that we can only understand qualitatively: both if they sound negative – such as those who say that readers are less and less or read less and less – and if they sound positive – such as those who say that, during the pandemic, they read more – are misleading because the motives for human behavior are very different.
For example, statistics on reading or non-reading habits never take the weather into account; the same column includes readers by Calderón de la Barca and Paulo Coelho, books by Dostoevsky and the last Planeta award; and, of course, they cannot take into account that a single good reader and a single good book can change everything, both personally and socially. If it is confusing to standardize facts that are, by their very nature, varied, and if we cannot expect clarity from statistics that can never give reasons, it is a mistake to resort to them to try to understand something as vague as reading very different books. by very different people who, moreover, read for very different purposes.
In view of the supposed reading crisis in adolescence, it is worth proposing another hypothesis: what if those child readers were not true readers? What if the only achievement of the children’s school stage was to give them entertainment products we call books?
Large and challenging books
Between experiences that anyone who was a child reader can bring is that we spend many hours reading long books and that we spend a lot of time absorbed by novels by authors such as Scott, Dumas, Verne, etc.
Already I know that, to this, there will immediately be those who say that things are not like that now – which for many is right, although there are also fortunate ones for whom it is not – but what it is a matter of noting is this: that if Someone, as a child, was captured by great and moving stories, never forgets the experience, and, as it has become clear that something like this provokes an entirely different enthusiasm than any other way of passing the time can, there will always be an opportunity to recover it. la.
Furthermore, anyone who was an avid child reader remembers, on some occasions, having stumbled upon liv powerful ones, who, although they were difficult, challenged him and left him restless, either because he realized that he needed to know more, or because he intuited that they contained much more than he could understand.
Valuable books that await us
Another issue to be underlined is that it is one thing for an educator not to impose the reading of something that a child reader cannot understand; another is not looking for a way to make them aware of the enormous power of great books and forgetting that, especially within a class, it is necessary to figure, and yes, there are those who can accept the challenge of demanding proposals. In this sense, it is not a drama that a boy arrives at university without having read Don Quixote or Os Grooms
, but it is an educational failure that doesn’t grow up being very clear that if you liked such books during such a time, it’s for good reasons, and that you don’t have in your horizon the possibility and desire to give them a opportunity when the time comes.
Here it is opportune to bring the comment of Claudio Magris, that “the school cannot be a cow with infinite teats from which all types of milk, past and to come, flow” and apply it to children’s books: from school we should expect it to promote the best, and in this case, the best books, not children’s books in general, much less recently published ones, and even less those that, supposedly, they deal with the problems of the moment, or they are from local authors or friends.
In short, as Flannery O’Connor says, “the high school literature teacher will fulfill his responsibility if he guides the luno, through the best literature of the past, to the understanding of the best writing of the present; if he teaches literature, not social studies, not little lessons in democracy, not the customs of other lands. What if the student doesn’t like it? Well, we’ll be sorry. Infinitely. But we must not take into account his taste: he is graduating.”
Deep books in classes
At this point it is worth mentioning a book from American pedagogue Karen Bohlin titled Educating Character Through Literature (Routledge, 53), in which it is discussed what kind of books should be offered to secondary school students and how, with them, their moral imagination can be awakened. It indicates that, against the sociological fiction of fashion, it is necessary to bet on books of recognized literary quality. It makes the very graphic comparison that, just as a tennis coach doesn’t make his students practice with deflated balls, and a music teacher doesn’t make his students practice with violins without strings, a literature teacher has to opt for works with depth.
It also says that classes should not be like static guides to literature – which, for example, focus too much on the analysis of a literary resource and lose sight of the story as a whole – and should take the students to jump to a higher level of questions: exemplifies indicating that one cannot reduce O sol é para todos to a lesson on racism, nor summarize Romeo and Juliet with phrases that condense the plot; and pointing out the superficiality of moralizing in a simplistic way and treating Atticus Finch as a hero without recognizing his weaknesses, or lamenting the impossible love of Romeo and Juliet without questioning its authenticity.
Bohlin explains well that the characters of the best literature provide us with privileged windows into the human soul through which we can examine the internal and external factors that ultimately weigh on whether or not someone becomes a type of person deserving of admiration and respect. It points out that, whether examining the moral growth of Jane Eyre, the heroine of Charlotte Brontë, or Ralph and Jack, the protagonists of Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, literature can help us pay attention to the experiences and dispositions that contribute to the moral development of each character.
On the other hand, adolescent readers are at a vital stage full of ideals, which is why they feel inclined to read with interest what corresponds to the education of desire and which can teach them the true virtue of the false. Evaluating the choices and mistakes of literary heroes in well-thought-out classes opens up opportunities for them to reflect on the value of their own performances and goals, and activates their moral imaginations.
Books that transform us
For Bohlin, “literature teachers are no different from football coaches or music teachers. Whether teaching sport or a musical instrument, practice is what makes people better.” A literature teacher must make his students better acquainted with the vicarious experience and he must seek to make them readers capable of distinguishing between the choices that lead fiction characters to flourish and those that lead them to a life that is not fully human.
So, going back to what was said at the beginning, the discomfort with teenagers reading less is not solved by giving them books that lower the level, but by giving them looks that bring them true inner enrichment. Teachers – Bohlin adds – must propose to speak in the classroom of stories from which young readers can draw inspiration, that make them more skilled in ethical reflection and help them to avoid justifications and self-deception, that are a reference forever and that make their lives richer.
In general, in order to be serious about reading and readers, we would first have to agreement as to the meaning of the words: not even the reading we are talking about is a download of data, but a way to arrive at a better understanding of reality; not a true reader is one who seeks books that provide only entertainment, but one who seeks readings that exceed his expectations and make him mature. Or, in the words of Nicolás Gómez Dávila, a true reader is one who does not try to spend his limited time “reading a thousand mediocre books that dull his critical sense and injure his literary sensibility”; what he learns to read “without feeling watched by the literary fads” of the moment; which is clear that “it is not among the little ones that we feel big, it is in the light of the big ones that we feel growing”.
That said, getting a teenage reader to have these intellectual plans requires clarity about the goals of educational work and assuming that the nature of reading includes that good books offer resistance and require efforts that will often seem fruitless, but which are absolutely necessary. As Gregorio Luri says in The school is not an amusement park (Ariel, 2020), “ it is evident that knowledge is necessary both to seek knowledge and to judge the value of the knowledge found”, and that, “above all, quality knowledge is necessary to produce quality knowledge”.
That is, , readings are necessary both to seek new readings and to judge the value of previous readings, and, above all, quality readings are necessary to become a quality reader. It seems obvious, but you can already see that it’s not so much.