Is reading an unnatural act?
A number of years ago, my wife, at the time a public-school teacher in Anaheim, California, had a second-grader who could not read. He was the toughest kid in class, a behavioral problem, and several other teachers had been unable to teach him to read, either through phonics or sight reading. Then my wife brought the boy to the school library where she opened up an edition of Mother Goose. She showed the boy the illustrations and read the poems to him. Perhaps, due to the colorful images and large type face in the book, or perhaps due to the boy's intuitive sense of rhythm and rhyme, he started to read.
This boy was not dyslexic, but like so many people he had difficulty reading. He is not the only one. An acquaintance of mine, who attained nearly perfect scores on his GRE's and has a PhD, told me that he doesn't necessarily like to read. For years, I too deemed reading to be less than pleasurable. My reading struggles arose from depression, a classic symptom of which is an inability to concentrate.
As I have written before, when I had my first psychotic break in 1997, I could not read a newspaper article, let alone a book, all the way through. So, what did I do after recuperating from my illness? I became a copy editor for L.A. Weekly, where over the course of nine years I developed into a much more fluid and dedicated reader of prose.
To this day, I pay close attention to how well I am reading. It is a barometer of my mental health.
But even for mentally healthy individuals, reading can be arduous.
As a species, we have been speaking for at least 50,000 years, but we have been reading for only about 5,000, so speech comes much more naturally to us than does reading, which is not as hard-wired into our brains. Studies by neuroscientists have revealed, however, that the more one reads the more neural activity goes on in one's posterior lobe. Even dyslexics can improve their reading if they learn their phonemes, the individual sounds comprising each word.
With the school year just a few weeks away, I have been thinking about the future of reading. In January, a Kaiser Family Foundation study reported that children and teens from the age of 8 to 18 engage in more than 7 ½ hours of daily electronic activity. Which begs the question: How, in the age of Facebook, Twitter and text-messaging, will kids find time to read, let alone sleep? And when I say "read," I mean sentences, not fragments, the idiom that pervades many of the new technologies.
I recognize that some electronic devices do allow for complete sentences such as the Kindle, whose e-book sales recently surpassed hardcover sales on Amazon. So long as kids are reading entire stories, not shards of text, they will hopefully be able to benefit from the aesthetic and cognitive pleasures of deep reading.
A recent study by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, found that when low-income children were provided with free books over the summer, their test scores went up. The study also revealed that children improved their reading comprehension even when they were reading books that would not be considered literary.
Which brings me to Harry Potter, a publishing juggernaut of debatable canonical status. In conjunction with the release of the first half of the final Harry Potter film scheduled for later this year, Bloomsbury will be publishing the complete Potter series with new jacket designs. This is a positive development even though literary critic Harold Bloom, the guardian of the canon, has decried Rowling's books for their "clichés and dead metaphors."
When I read the first of those books, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, I found that it did indeed traffic in clichés such as the smug girl "pointing her nose in the air," and various characters "pressing their noses against windows" or "sitting on the edge of their seats." It also struck me as being derivative of Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl and even Star Wars with its talk of the Dark Side. Sorcerer's Stone presented a Manichaean universe, not the more morally nuanced world of Huck Finn or Treasure Island, literary gems I have enjoyed as an adult, though I had trouble starting them as a child.
Yet Sorcerer's Stone, which many fans say is not as good a book as the later ones in the series, was lively with hilarious names of characters, worthy of Dickens, and had a palpable drive to its narrative. While there was little suspense about Harry's inevitable confrontation with the one who cannot be named, Rowling did devise a charming creation myth for her protagonist, built us toward the moment when Harry finds out who he really is, and subverted stereotypes by having a hook-nosed codger turn out to be a good guy.
Not everyone has Bloom's Talmudic DNA coursing through his cortex, and few grew up reading Whitman and Dickinson, as Bloom did in his early years. But many of us have graduated from the comics or sports section, my bailiwick in my youth, to Shakespeare and beyond.
If young people put aside their Blackberries, videogames and iPods, and read newspapers, magazines and books, whether it's Harry Potter, Mother Goose or Treasure Island, that activity will stimulate the neurons in their posterior lobe and some day those readers may even pick up The Anxiety of Influence.