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Posted: Sep 29, 2008 11:05


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By Rosemary McKinnon
Montana Academy
Marion, Montana

Around a year ago I was cozily in bed reading the London Times Book Review when I came across an article by Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader, which caused me to laugh out loud. Bennett's conceit was that the Queen of England had followed her roaming dogs and stumbled across the City of Westminster's traveling library van. She wandered off from this encounter with a book in hand and, page by page, book by book, became a reader.

Much to the consternation of her husband, Prince Philip, and her staff, the Queen began to inflict her interest in reading not only on her subjects, abandoning her usual inquires as to length of service, distance traveled, place of origin, embarking instead on a new conversational gambit, "What are you reading at the moment?" At state banquets she would lean toward, let's say, the president of France to ask "I've been longing to ask you about the writer Jean Genet." This article has since been turned into a short novella, now available in the US, and I will not spoil it for you by saying any more.

The Uncommon Reader was published in 2007 at the same time as the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) released its report on the decline of reading for pleasure. Several authors were moved to comment on this phenomenon. Ursula Le Guin wrote an article entitled Staying Awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading in the February 2008 edition of Harpers Magazine and Caleb Crain published an article, Twilight of the Books: What will life be like if people stop reading? in The New Yorker, December 24 & 31, 2007.

Le Guin questions the assumption that books are on their way out, asserting that they are here to stay. She labels 1850-1950 as the Century of the Book, in which literacy filtered downward, not only as the front door to individual economic and class advancement, but also as an important social activity and bond. TV shows and sports teams have largely replaced books as common vehicles for social bonding.

However Le Guin points to the Harry Potter phenomenon as offering both adolescents and young adults an exclusive in-group and shared social experience. She registers the fact that books offer a different form of entertainment from TV (all it needs is light, a human eye and a human mind) in that "reading is active, an act of attention, of absorbed alertness - not all that different from hunting, or from gathering." "It won't do the work for you. To read a story well is to follow it, to act it, to feel it, to become it - everything short of writing it, in fact….No wonder not everybody is up to it."

I made a cursory inspection of the boys' dorm bookshelves to find out what they were reading. Certainly there were a good many copies of Harry Potter, along with Hemmingway, Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy. But some of the bookshelves revealed reading tastes that were voracious and far ranging. One such bookshelf contained the following: Peter Robb, A Death in Brazil; Jim Marrs, Crossfire: the Plot that Killed Kennedy; Dan Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; Machiavelli's The Prince; Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell; The Dalai Lama's Little Book of Wisdom; Tom Wolfe The Bonfire of the Vanities; Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and, last but not least, The Ultimate Book of Sports' Lists.

Reading is alive and well at Montana Academy. Our students are unquestionably "up to it." Like the Queen, whether purposefully or accidentally, Montana Academy students are readers.

Why is this the case? Certainly our students are bright, and thanks to their parents, they have a wide knowledge of world affairs. Also, thanks to Carol Santa's insistence, from the very beginning we have set aside a daily Reading Hour. Carol's idea was that this time should be used for self-selected reading for pleasure. She was adamant that unless we structured this time, reading would not take place, and that it was important that we protect this time from the pressure of reading for school assignments. This early decision has done much to foster a culture of reading at Montana Academy.

Why is this important? Caleb Crain writes in his New Yorker article, Twilight of the Books, that "Americans are losing not just the will to read but even the ability." He goes on to suggest that "if, over time, many people choose television over books, then a nation's conversation with itself is likely to change." He quotes some experimental psychologists as suggesting that a reader and a viewer think differently. He speculates that we are at risk of returning to a society of "secondary orality," akin to the primary orality that existed before the emergence of text.

The difference between those who are literate and those who are orally based is that literate people can rotate concepts in their minds abstractly and fluent readers are able to integrate more of their own thoughts and feelings into their experience. Orally oriented people embed their thoughts in stories and have more difficulty distancing themselves from electronic technology. They have trouble negotiating differences of opinion and may be less likely to spend time with ideas with which they disagree. Crain's final line is a warning: "Such a habit might be quite dangerous for a democracy to lose." All this is provocative especially in light of our upcoming election.

Although it is fascinating to conjecture as to where our society is headed, we also continue to focus closer to home on the skills that our students are learning, whether they be for use in the classroom or for pleasure in years to come. In addition to substantial reading, both inside and outside class, it is important to teach students writing skills in all areas of the curriculum. By fostering reading for both classroom and pleasure, and focusing on writing, we help our students join in the important on-going conversation with the extended reading community.

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