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Melony

Why Should Adults Read?

I have to write a newspaper editorial about adult literacy for the local literacy organization.  There are only so many essays one can write about being a literacy tutor or why illiterate adults shoud learn to read.  I was thinking of another approach about why those of us who did learn how to read should continue reading and what we should aim for in our reading material.

I was wondering what you all think about why adults should read.  Why do we come here to discuss books?  Are we any better off or do we get more out of life than adults who don't read or don't read well or widely?  Thanks for your opinions.
Evie

Hello Melony - I don't think anyone *should* read.  Reading, as a technical skill, is of great help, and I think everyone should learn how to do that, as there are so many things in life that will be difficult for people who can't read; but in terms of reading books either for pleasure or for any reason beyond the essentials, I don't think there's any reason why adults should do that.

Of course, my own view is that reading does enhance our understanding of the world, and helps us to think about ourselves and about each other and about the world around us, and I also think it's a Good Thing to explore human creativity.  All of this applies to both fiction and non-fiction.  But it's not a question of whether people *should* read.

People need to be able to communicate, they need to be able to understand legal or financial or other practical documents, most jobs require some level of reading - but beyond that is personal choice. I know people who live fulfilled and thoughtful lives without ever reading a book - strange but true!
MikeAlx

I think the argument for reading fiction in particular breaks down into two parts: the first is the importance of storytelling in general, the second is the advantage of experiencing stories through the written form.

The first part is simple: stories are essential tools for living. They allow us to learn and explore safely, without the risks of direct experience; they help consolidate the moral values of society; they transmit knowledge. In short, they impart wisdom and stimulate critical thought. That's why they've been around ever since humans could speak.

But of course we can experience stories through film, drama, song, dance and many other forms. So why written fiction? Well I'd argue that the written form is superior at representing internal thoughts and feelings. By comparison, the 'voice-over' or the stage soliloquy are clumsy devices; with novels and short stories we can have the interior and exterior seamlessly interwoven. This great strength is what makes written fiction so good at exploring different points of view, and thus a source of the comparative richness of the form.
Evie

Yes, that's excellent, Mike.  I agree that, for me, story is essential to society - and has been intrinsic to society since forever.  But I think a lot of people won't consciously make that connection, even though it's true, and won't read in order to get that level of sophistication out of reading - nor do I think it is essential.  I just think it makes life and society better!  But I wouldn't expect everyone to read fiction, nor to read beyond the need to find information - it's the *should* that I think is not necessary.  No one *should* read - but reading (and writing) is indeed a significant aspect of society.  So is economics, but I have no interest in and no understanding of that side of things!
MikeAlx

Yes, I agree with you Evie. Indeed, nothing is more likely to put me off doing something than someone telling me I *should* do it! I suppose I was interpreting Melony's question along the lines of "what are the benefits to adults of reading fiction?". Hehe, I always dropped marks in exams due to "not reading the question properly".  Wink
Evie

No, I think I am just being pedantic! †Your analysis of why reading is important is excellent, and even if people don't *need* to read, your response is precisely why I think it is worth encouraging people to do so.
MikeAlx

No, I think you make a very valid point, Evie. To draw an admittedly imperfect analogy, if you want people to eat good food, it's probably better to tell them it tastes good than that it's character building!  Smile
Evie

Oh, we're so polite!   Wink
Melony

You two are funny! †Evie, I understand your point, but Mike did interpret the question as I had intended. †I don't mean "should" in the jussive, but rather in the optative form, just asking what do we get out of it that we should do it.
MikeAlx

Melony wrote:
I don't mean "should" in the jussive, but rather in the optative form

We'd never have guessed you were a Latinist, Melony!  Wink
Simon The Sponge

MikeAlx wrote:
I think the argument for reading fiction in particular breaks down into two parts: the first is the importance of storytelling in general, the second is the advantage of experiencing stories through the written form.

The first part is simple: stories are essential tools for living. They allow us to learn and explore safely, without the risks of direct experience; they help consolidate the moral values of society; they transmit knowledge. In short, they impart wisdom and stimulate critical thought. That's why they've been around ever since humans could speak.


Just wanted to say that is an incredibly pertinent and beautifully summarised point Mike.

On the second point of why the written form is valuable I think one of its inherent benefits is that it gives space for reflection during the "telling" in a way that is not possible or would be clumsy and detrimental to the form with film or drama or music and in this respect can have a greater, more profound and longer lasting impact.
Freyda

MikeAlx wrote:
Melony wrote:
I don't mean "should" in the jussive, but rather in the optative form

We'd never have guessed you were a Latinist, Melony! †Wink


Oh dear, I studied Latin to O level but I've never heard of these tenses? cases?

I agree wholeheartedly with what has been said very eloquently above. I think humans have a deep psychological need for stories...we used to listen to them round the fires, and the oral tradition has turned into a written tradition, and now a screen-based one, but the last does lack the subtler and deeper, more complex, introspective dimension of the written form.

I certainly need to read stories (almost always fiction) all the time. I can't really explain why it is a necessary parallel to living "real" life for †me, but I would be poorer without the time to do so. And cannot imagine how people don't need to do it, but do imagine that they are more surface, more instantaneous sorts, less introspective themselves. Or does Eastenders and Heat magazine fill the same gap for them?
Melony

Quote:
MikeAlx wrote:
Melony wrote:
I don't mean "should" in the jussive, but rather in the optative form

We'd never have guessed you were a Latinist, Melony! †


Funny, Mike, funny! Subjunctive, Freyda, obscure in English now, or increasingly so here, anyway! †I'm starting to think grammar may as well all be Latin now, as the rules I learned often no longer apply! †Oh, but maybe that's because we are getting away from the artificial Latin-based grammar and moving toward a more appropriate Anglo Saxon?

I would like to ask, based on what everyone has said, if you think reading changed the human brain the way the computer is reputed to be changing it now? †I don't think we would be the same without written stories. †Hearing them is one thing and the oral tradition is important, but just the advancement of "civilization" with the written word - forget about value judgements and whether one is happier reading or not for a moment - seems enough to say one should read.

As for reading literature, a few people do detest it with all their being. †Should we make them read and why?
Joe Mac

'Make' people read? Feel free to try. I think we should certainly insist that all children be taught to read, but beyond their school years, there's no telling them what to do. Our daughter read for pleasure all through her teens; our two sons never read a word they weren't forced to.
I have friends who never read books and seem bright and well enough adjusted. I think (I hope!) all the members of the library board I serve on read, but from what I've seen, several don't aim very high.

As for whether reading has changed the human brain I have no idea, but it has certainly changed human behaviour. We still 'need' stories, but printed material - not to mention television and ye olde computer - allows us private access. The social aspect of stories is largely out of the equation. Writing has also, obviously, changed the role of the storyteller and done away with the need for memorization.
TheRejectAmidHair

I am not at all sure why I read. It has become such an ingrained habit that I don't even think to ask myself that question. But, to state the obvious, one reads different books for different reasons: you may read textbooks to pass your exams, you may read cookery books or DIY books to pick up certain skills, you may read non-fiction books because you want to learn about something, etc. etc. All books are not the same, and there are naturally a wide variety of reasons for wanting to read them.

This applies even if we restrict ourselves to prose fiction. I recently read Flashman at the Charge, and read it for reasons entirely different from the ones that prompted me to read, say, The Ambassadors. In one novel, I was looking for lifght entertainment, and in the other, I was looking for what may vaguely be described as an "aesthetic experience". I don't know that a single set of reasons can cover both.

To be honest, when I browse through the books on my local bookshop, with a great many books, I wonder why anyone reads them. Oh well, each to their own, I suppose!

Should people be forced to read? Only children - otherwise they'll never learn. If any adult needs to be forced to read, then, as far as reading is concerned, that adult is a lost cause anyway - so why bother? In any case, it's a free country, and each adult is free to choose whether or not to read: to impose reading (or anything else) upon them would be an unacceptable restriction of their freedom to choose.

And yes, some people do appear to "detest [literature] with all their being", as Melony puts it. And once again, that is their choice. As long as I'm free to pursue my own literary interests, I can't say I give a toss whether or not others may detest it!
Evie

No, I don't think we should make people read.  That's what I was trying to say in my first response.
MikeAlx

We shouldn't make children read, we should encourage them to read, preferably by finding books that appeal to them and fire their imaginations.

Of course, in the case of people with dyslexia, it's perfectly understandable why some of them choose to avoid reading wherever possible.
Evie

Melony's question is about adults, though.  If it is a literacy issue, the reasons for needing to read are to make life easier, to enable fuller communication, etc.  Everyone should be made to read in that sense.  

But reading fiction is a different issue.
Melony

Those are really good answers, all of them (I'm not grading you...Smile

When I said "make people read" I did mean children.  We make them read all the time, or try to, and when they don't we flunk them.  You are all correct, I guess, we can't make people read.  

But, you know, in some careers you can't move up if you can't read well.  For example, the correlation between higher level reading skills and success in college courses.  Are we cheating people if we don't instill a love of reading in them and the skills to read well?
Evie

I'm really confused now - I thought the article was about adult literacy.

However, have said from the start that yes, people should read - it is an essential life skill, if you are talking about the ability to read fluently.  If you are talking about whether people should read beyond the necessary, that's a different issue.

When you said that Mike had interpreted your question correctly earlier, that was about reading fiction; that is a different issue from reading to get you through life in terms of college, career, etc.

And who is 'we'?  It's the job of educators and parents to make sure their children can read - but 'we' in terms of society have no say in what people should or shouldn't do (jussively or optatively).  If you are now talking about children rather than adults, then yes, they are let down by their teachers and parents if they are not made to read.  Adults make their own decisions.

But I am still confused as to what we are really talking about!
Melony

Hi, Evie.  Well, the question did start out about adults and that is what the article is about.  We haven't really posed a good argument for adult literacy at all, except for the line you wrote about being literate makes life easier.  Mike's points were, well, as Simon said, beautifully articulated.

I do think people should read - let's leave out the "be made to" part then. And I do think people should read literature. And I do think people should progress in the level of literature they read throughout life, even if they don't reach something like Tolstoy until they are well past 50.  It seems like there is a certain responsibility to ourselves to elevate our understanding and experience through reading.  Reading literature makes life easier, because even though it is fiction, it poses certain paradigms and answers in real life.  There should be a bucket list for reading.  I do think some people make one.
Green Jay

What is a bucket list, please?
storrrm

Is it things to do before you die?
Castorboy

Melony wrote:
Reading literature makes life easier, because even though it is fiction, it poses certain paradigms and answers in real life. †There should be a bucket list for reading. †I do think some people make one.

If you mean there are certain books which help one to solve some of the problems one meets in life, I think you are right. Of course I am not talking about self-help books - but the works of literature that have dealt with conflicts, both inner and outward, which one can experience.
Caro

You can't force people to read, but I still think people 'should' read.  And I think they 'should' read some fiction.  I am influenced in this by the fact that I have one child (well, he is 28 now) who only reads non-fiction and non-fiction usually of the right-wing 'how I got to where I am' type.  As well as information on anything that pertains to his farming career, whether about soil structure or cow numbers or the economy or how this is done in other countries.  He has quite a large general knowledge and knows a lot.  And has many strong opinions well expressed.  

What he lacks is empathy.  And I think that is what reading fiction gives you.  You would expect that you might get this from television viewing, but it doesn't seem to work that way.  In fiction writers bring you into the minds of people who are not necessarily the same as you; sometimes people are still condemned in a rather knee-jerk way, but generally a good writer can show the inconsistencies of behaviour and attitude that makes us all up, the reasons people do what they do, the history and story behind their actions, the 'so much good in the worst of us, so much bad in the best of us' idea.  

It is very hard to find this in memoirs, biographies, newspaper reports, etc.

Cheers, Caro.
Melony

Yes, a bucket list is a list of things to do before you die.  I'm not sure anyone ever said on his/her deathbed, "I wish I had read more." Smile But, it is an entertaining thought.

I agree with you, Caro and Castorboy.  I do think there are things to learn from fiction, such as empathy or a broadening out of experience.  Thanks for those comments.
Caro

"I'm not sure anyone ever said on his/her deathbed, "I wish I had read more.""

I would, Melony.  At least I often think that.  Oddly no one else would - they all say I read all the time, but that is not quite right.  I use my eyes on written material all the time, but it is often puzzles, or computer games, or message boards or newspapers etc., not the book I want to have read.  (Though not always actively want to read!)

Cheers, Caro.
Melony

That's interesting, Caro. †I have had the thought, at what point would it become futile to read any thing else? †You know how the end is going to be - the end of life, that is. †Would it really be neccesary to continue on with that TBR pile in light of pending death? †At what point would it not be useful anymore to know the things that are in books? †It's a kind of morbid question, I guess.

I used to think when I was very young that when you saw old people sitting around reading, it was because they couldn't live life any other way, and so books were a way for old people to experience things they are no longer physically capable of experiencing themselves. †I think our existence has to be a good combination of both - you have to get out while you can, but also read widely to complement the real experiences.

This kind of reminds me of The Uncommon Reader. †The Queen's thirst for reading seized her when she was older and realized there was so much she hadn't read and experienced through books.
Joe Mac

There are incurious types for whom the 'broadening of experience' represented in books is of little or no interest. I know lots of them. They may travel, but usually only to avoid a few weeks of winter and only then to resorts.
The curious mind wants to learn things and experience things. If I could I'd travel about half the year, and read books the other half. That'd be about perfect, I think.

I also have friends who are able to do some of the things I can only read about - travel widely, climb mountains, canoe remote rivers. I find that due to my reading I can converse pretty easily and reasonably knowledgeably about most of this and a lot of other stuff regarding exotic places and cultures. Reading allows me a certain awareness and appreciation of the world around me that I otherwise could not have. And because of the kind of person I am, that seems desirable and necessary.

Satisfying curiosity about the world - inner and outer - and averting boredom - these are the reasons I read, I think. Certainly not because I have any self-improvement agenda. The small world of family, work and community - while certainly worth plenty of care and attention - is not nearly enough to satisfy my restless mind.

Perhaps I can blame it all on the novels my mother read to me. In any case, I imagine I'll be reading until I drop dead, or at least listening to books if I lose my eyesight.
MikeAlx

Caro wrote:
...who only reads non-fiction and non-fiction usually of the right-wing 'how I got to where I am' type

Which is a fairly useless indicator of how to get anywhere unless tempered by reading "how I screwed up and didn't get there" books (which of course nobody writes). I wouldn't be at all surprised if the hows were very similar in both cases.

It's an interesting observation (made by Dr Richard Wiseman in his book 'The Luck Factor', which is more scientifically founded than most self-help books) that many of the most successful business people are extremely social - they tend to keep in touch with more people than the average, and are good at maintaining friendships with useful contacts. They put a lot of effort into 'grooming'. That doesn't sound like a person who lacks empathy (on the other hand, there are always a few who seem to get ahead by sheer ruthlessness alone).
TheRejectAmidHair

I've been away again for a few days, and am only just catching up with this thread. Reading through the posts, I can't help but get the feeling that this thread is flying off in all sorts of different directions. There have, all the same, been some very interesting contributions so far.

As far as children's reading is concerned, it seems to me a necessity. Reading is an essential life-skill, and whether as parents or as educators, we would be failing in our duty if we don't ensure that our children are literate at least to a functional level. Ideally, this should be done by encouragement rather than by force, but that does leave open the question of what we do with those children who refuse to learn to read, even when encouraged. I used to be parent governor of a primary school, and this really is a serious problem. I remember particularly one 7-year-old who simply refused to read, even when encouraged (and no - he was not dyslexic). He told me he didn't need to read because he was going to be a stuntman when he grew up. Should he have been forced? Or should we just have let him remain illiterate? I don't know...

As far as adult reading is concerned, I do feel it is important to take an interest in at least something worthwhile - something beyond the mind-numbing trivia of modern popular culture (if "culture" is indeed the word I'm looking for). I used to bore my kids by telling them that it must take an extraordinarily dull person not to take any interest in the fascinating world that we live in. But if they don't, they don't - that's their choice.

My own particular interest (outside my professional life) is, of course, literature, but there's no reason why I should expect others to share my preferences. I am very ignorant about all sorts of other things - medieval history, molecular biology, macro-economics, Buddhist theology ... you name it, I am ignorant about it.  So why should I insist that others share my passion for literature when I don't share the passion they may have for other matters? It's only when people are interested in nothing that they become dull.
Castorboy

I have just found a quote from Professor Arnold Toynbee about reading:

The novelist vies with the diarist, the biographer and the letter writer to determine whether Fiction or Fact is the more propitious medium for bringing out the poetry in the private affairs of ordinary people.

I wonder why he used the word poetry and not, say, drama. Obviously the whole paragraph needs to be read to appreciate his point. The quote is from his Study of History, a book I havenít got.
Evie

'Poetry' and 'drama' are surely two quite different things - and he meant poetry!  Sorry to sound facetious.  But it is one of the big reasons why fiction is important, for me - it encourages the reader to see the beauty, the deeper meaning, the poetic currents of all sorts, in the ordinary things of life.  Drama would suggest action or the outwardly remarkable, poetry is about the quieter, more subtle, less fanfarish aspects of meaning.
TheRejectAmidHair

But surely the two aren't mutually exclusive. For instance, Milton's Samson Agonistes is a dramatic poem, whereas Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, say, is a poetic drama.

I often feel that the best dramas have about them a poetic sensibility. Before Ibsen & Chekhov, after all, it was felt that verse was a natural medium for drama, and even into the 20th century, Yeats and Eliot were continuing to write plays in verse. Ibsen wrote dramatic verse himself, of course (Brand & Peer Gynt), and even after he turned to prose drama, he filled his plays with a wealth of poetic imagery.

Mike Harvey & I touched recently on the nature of dramatic writing, and on what it is that makes a conversation "dramatic". Unfortunately, I got caught up in a few other things and didn't have much time to think about it properly, but it did strike me that good dramatic writing is perhaps closer to poetry than to narrative prose. It's a fascinating subject, and I need to think about it a bit more closely.
Evie

Yes, but I was referring simply to why Toynbee used 'poetic' rather than 'dramatic' - not to plays and poems as such.  He used poetic because he meant poetic - he didn't mean dramatic.
TheRejectAmidHair

Oh sorry - I see what you mean. It's still too early in the morning for me!
Evie

It's OK, your post is far more interesting!  Than mine, I mean.
Melony

Well, drama was poetry in the beginning.  It was written in meter from the ancient Greek origins through Shakespeare's time, wasn't it?
MikeAlx

Hmmm, I think this is getting tangled around the various meanings of 'drama' and 'poetry'. Drama can be poetic just as poetry can be dramatic! I think where fiction scores against biography and factual writing (to get back to Toynbee) is that it often expresses what I'd call the lyrical, as well as the narrative. I would guess that's what was meant by 'poetry' in this context.
Castorboy

I'd go along with that but for clarification I'd like to see the context in which he posed that question about Fact or Fiction. And which one he preferred!
Vera Brittain believed it was possible to find and convey this poetry by the creative treatment of actuality.
Melony

I've got Toynbee, but it would take me awhile to find that passage.  There are some history experts here, aren't there?  Anyone remember it from university days?

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