Ladies, gentlebeings and assorted visiting alien lifeforms, if you are a regular peruser of these humble communiques, then you have no doubt noticed that I often refer to you as “dear reader,” or occasionally, “my dear and long suffering reader.” This is an attempt to acknowledge my culpability in adding to the petabytes of literary logorrhea that is jettisoned onto the world-wide-inter-web-net on a daily basis.
This salubrious sobriquet is, to my mind, rather apropos. The act of reading is so precious to me that I don’t think I could live in a world devoid of such an ennobling experience. And yet, this most basic of functional skills seems to be steadily degrading.
Many will point to television or the aforementioned interweb as culprits here, but I think it starts, as so many things do, with children. Encouraging children to read sounds obvious, but most people either aren’t sure how to do so, or they wait until the child begins school in the hopes that the educational system will help encourage them to read. The trouble is, while school will teach a child to read, the standardized testing and rote memorization found in most schools often reduce reading to an experience that’s neither fun nor engaging.
So how does one encourage children to read? I’m not an expert, but like every other bright spark on the interwebs, I have a suggestion.
I admit, I always feel as if I’m skating close to the wind when offering advice on any subject, much less one with which I have precious little experience – parenting – nevertheless, here we are. First, a little background for context.
I was an… odd child. Not exactly an unanticipated nugget of intelligence I grant you. I became obsessed with reading at a very early age. I’m told (I don’t remember this) that the family friend who used to babysit me when I was a toddler would take me out to the park and “show off” my reading skills. Specifically, she would take me to a monument called The Fighting Newfoundlander, a statue paying tribute to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment that fought in the First World War. Apparently I was able to read words like “Newfoundland Regiment” at four years old, amazing passersby with my preschool linguistic legerdemain. Of course I hadn’t the faintest idea [what] I was reading, but I knew how the words were supposed to sound. A love affair was born.
From the time I was old enough to comprehend the words on a page, my head was never far from a book, or any other printed object for that matter. I would read the cereal box if it was the only thing in front of me. My mother, falling back on the experiences of her own childhood, thought it was rude to read at the table and often said so. My father however, was more circumspect, understanding that this desire I had to read could only be a good thing as I got older. To this day I cannot have a meal alone without something to read.
All this is backstory of course to try and feebly prop up my suggestion for encouraging reading among young children in a world filled with shiny, glowing distractions.
What if, whenever small children asked one of their myriad questions about the world, we just said, “You know, I’m not sure, let’s look it up and find out!”
You’ll notice I said “look it up,” not “Google it.” There’s nothing wrong with Google/Skynet in and of itself, and I for one will grudgingly welcome our omnipotent artificially intelligent overlords, but taking a child to an actual library to discover the answers to their questions positively associates books with knowledge and discovery. This is particularly useful, as the North American educational system will, with the best of intentions, mercilessly beat that joy out of them. Also, turning the answer to a question into an adventure at the library is fun, and a great way to spend quality time with your kids.
Now I realize that you can’t go to the library every time a child has a question. However, what if you made it into a weekly thing – an appointment as important as anything in one’s calendar? The child’s questions can be collected throughout the week, perhaps in a special “question book,” and then when library day comes, they can all be answered in an engaging and fun adventure.
Visiting a library on a regular basis has another benefit – it supports local libraries. Many of these facilities get their funding based on usage numbers. If fewer and fewer people are availing themselves of the services of a library, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify the costs it takes to keep it open.
The biggest problem with the internet and Google is that when you ask a question, it gets answered as succinctly as possible. There’s no time wasted, no lengthy research to be done, no sense of accomplishment – just the answer. Useful, but hardly empowering.
Books on the other hand (no matter the format) offer that feeling of achievement when you’ve spent time researching a topic. Reading is a skill that only improves with use, and the bite-sized and frankly vacuous nature of content available on the world-wide-inter-web-net is greatly degrading human reading ability. Books are also naturally relaxing because they force you to slow down and process the words on the page – a very difficult task for many people in this day and age. This processing also forces you to think, sadly another task that seems to be a challenge for many.
Even in the online world, we need to strive to create better, more engaging material. The reason people “skim” online and don’t read is that much of the material presented is vacuous filler. The fact that we can use an empty, lifeless phrase like “consume content” to describe the average person’s online habits clearly outlines the problem.
The best way to improve the reading levels of modern society is to start young. Turn reading and learning into an adventure, not just the outcome of the process of information gathering.
There’s an old idiom that’s been bandied about so much its meaning has largely been buried under a blanket of familiarity.
“Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”
Libraries and the gift of reading offers children the opportunity to feast for many lifetimes, an opportunity that they can then pass on to their children – a gift that truly does keep on giving.
My dearest reader, hate, fear, cruelty and prejudice thrive in an environment of ignorance. Teaching our children to explore the vast ocean of knowledge available in any library opens the world to them and reveals adventures beyond their wildest imagination.
In the end, the more we know and understand about each other, the more difficult it is to fear and hate. A worthy goal, n’est-ce pas?