I do everything I can to interest my kid in literature. This week I told them it was the Ides of March and when they asked what that meant I gave them a brief run-down of Julius Ceasar and tried to explain the phrase, “Et tu, Brute?” and what it means and how somebody might use it.
They are in a book club through our local library and I always ask about what they are reading. Right now the book is Home is Not a Country, by Safia Elhillo, which is different because it is a book of poetry, and that’s a bit outside of their comfort zone. They’re not used to reading verse. So when I asked them if they liked it I tried to clarify whether they liked the writing or the content and I have offered to find more books like it if they think they are interested. They aren’t sure what to think so far. And that’s okay. But I want them to know that it’s out there.
They recently read the His Dark Materials trilogy and we had a conversation about why they thought those books were so often challenged and put on banned books lists. They hypothesized it was because of the book’s less than glowing representation of the Church, and we talked about how they felt about that, since we go to church. Then I pointed out that part of the villainy of the book was that people were trying to keep kids from growing up and experiencing the fullness of adulthood. The bad guys in the book were trying to keep kids from knowing about “sin.” And we talked about how that was a little ironic, because that was kind of what people who are trying to ban books were doing. We decided that the metaphorical nature of the story was a bit on the nose.
I don’t want to push my kid into something they don’t want, but I also want to show them that there is a rich world out there. Books are fascinating. There are whole worlds out there waiting to be explored, if they’ll just give it a shot. And so far, they seem to be into it.
Now, I admit I am a bit of a gatekeeper in some ways, and I think I’ve talked about that before. There is some lit that is just better quality than others. And I admittedly hope my kid eventually goes for the quality stuff. But here’s the thing – it might not be the quality stuff that gets you to the point that you are a reader or that you appreciate a good book or a good story. And that’s okay. It’s probably not going to be Whitman or Morrison who first entices you into the world of words. You work your way up to that.
So that’s what I thought I’d give a little attention to today. Literacy, literature, and accessibility.
According to ThinkImpact,
- Nationwide, on average, 79% of U.S. adults are literate in 2022.
- 21% of adults in the US are illiterate in 2022.
- 54% of adults have a literacy below 6th grade level.
- Low levels of literacy costs the US up to 2.2 trillion per year.
But Melissa Gouty puts that into some perspective. She writes,
While 95% of the population of the United States can supposedly read and write at the most basic level, fewer and fewer people are reaching higher levels of literacy. Reading levels are not getting better. They are declining.
The average American reads between the 7th and 8th-grade level. U.S. adults rank 16th out of 23 countries with regard to reading levels, well below Canada, Japan, much of Scandinavia, Germany, Australia, and South Korea.
The level of education needed to understand political speeches is getting lower and lower as well, as indicated by the Fleisch-Kincaid ease-of reading scale posted after each State of the Union address. In 1790, George Washington’s talk scored a 20.4 level, (equivalent to graduate-level education.) The highest ever talk came from James Madison whose oration scored a 25.3. In the last 20 years, our President’s speeches scored between the 8th and 10th-grade reading levels.
There’s nothing wrong with simplifying ideas to make rhetoric easy to understand, but if the majority of our country is unable to read at more than a junior high level, how can we expect to move forward into the future with power? If our reading abilities remain so far behind the rest of the world, what will happen to our ability to innovate and invent, to dream and DO?
People CAN read and write but they DON’T. There’s not a premium put on reading and writing the way there perhaps once was. And as a result we might technically be literate, but we are hardly proficient.
So why aren’t we interested in reading and writing any more? What about those subjects is lackluster?
Consider the story of Toby Price, and assistant principal at Gary Road Elementary School in Hinds County, Mississippi.
You may have heard of Price in the last week or so because his story caused a bit of a stir in various online corners.
As Victoria Bekiempis reports,
On 2 March, Read Across America Day, pupils aged six and seven from Hinds county, Mississippi were waiting for a school administrator to read to them in a Zoom session, the New York Times reported.
The administrator was unable to attend so Toby Price, an assistant principal at Gary Road Elementary School who was in his office, stepped in. He quickly picked up I Need a New Butt!, by Dawn McMillan, and started reading to around 240 children.
I Need a New Butt!, for readers aged between four and eight, is about a boy who sets out to find a new bottom after seeing a “crack” in his buttocks which makes him afraid it is broken.
Price, who has been teaching for 20 years, said the district superintendent, Delesicia Martin, called him into her office and told him he was being placed on leave. Two days later, Price said, he was accused of breaking the Mississippi Educator Code of Ethics, and fired.
“I expected a write up,” Price told the Times. “I did not expect to get terminated. I cried the entire way home.”
In a letter to Price, the superintendent reportedly called the book “inappropriate”, pointing to references to flatulence and noting that it “described butts in various colors, shapes and sizes (example: fireproof, bullet proof, bomb proof)”.
Price said school officials told him they feared complaints from parents and Martin said he had been “unprofessional”. Price told the Times he had a lawyer and would fight his firing.
Now, would I have chosen I Need a New Butt to read to a group of elementary school kids? I dunno, probably not. Is it great literature? Most markedly not.
But is it silly? Did it probably make a bunch of kids laugh? Did it engage the audience? Very likely. Is it possible that one of those kids thought the book was funny or cool and wondered if they could pick it up or something like it and read it on their own? There’s no way of knowing whether that happened. But I’d say that is quite possible. Books like I Need a New Butt aren’t going to win any prizes for great literature. But they may just win some hearts and minds.
Toby Price was doing the kind of literacy work that somehow scores of English teachers have failed to do over the decades. He was making stories fun. He was showing kids that books are an entertaining, enjoyable thing. And you have to start somewhere. You don’t just jump into Gravity’s Rainbow.
A few years ago I had a friend who decided she was going to try to read fiction. She never really had. She read a lot, but it was all history, biography, or legal books. She wanted to give fiction a try. She decided to start with Les Miserables and just couldn’t get into it. And she announced she had been right all along and fiction just wasn’t worth her time.
Some of her other friends told her, no, she was just reading the wrong book – she should try The Brothers Karamazov or Infinite Jest. But she didn’t seem interested in any of their suggestions.
But I told her she was going about this all wrong. Reading is just like any exercise – you build up to the big stuff. You don’t start running by running a marathon. You have to train for it. Start with something manageable – read some Ray Bradbury or maybe even some Jane Austen if you insist on something old. But YA is really the best starting point for this kind of thing. Build yourself up to Hugo. You don’t just jump into Les Mis. You haven’t worked out enough for that.
I don’t think she liked my advice. She never said whether she bothered with anything other than histories or biographies ever again. But I got the feeling from that group of people they didn’t like being told they needed to work their way into the greats. I guess the idea is that fiction should be easy. Because it’s not real, right? So how challenging could it be?
But the thing is, we know literature is hard. And the “better” the literature often the harder it is. Paradise Lost is one of the great works of the English language. But I don’t recommend it as a beach read. You’ve got to want it. You’re going to put some blood, sweat, and tears into that.
And this brings me back to the gatekeeping I was talking about in the beginning. I’ll be the first to say some literature is of a higher quality than other literature. I’m snobby like that. But I’ll also be the first to say that accessibility matters just as much as quality in many cases.
Consider Shakespeare for a minute. He’s the go-to. When people think greats of English literature they may think Shakespeare. But let’s talk about him for a minute. He pumped out plays at a ridiculous rate, wrote for the most common audience, half of his writing is just a collection of puns and dirty jokes, boldly plagiarized from older stories and even from himself, and sometimes just flat-out made up words when he couldn’t find one that suited him. But current day standards he was a hack. He was self-publishing and appealing to the lowest common denominator all in an effort to make a quick buck.
But what Shakespeare did was write characters that were profoundly human. For all of his lewdness and his dad jokes and word play, what set him apart was his ability to understand the themes that we all tap into and put them on display and make them bigger than life. He knew what made us tick.
The thing is, if Shakespeare has a contemporary, it’s not Salmon Rushdie or Jonathan Franzen. It’s J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. Somebody who appeals to the masses, writes for the money, but somehow makes humanity real.
And this is why I don’t think we can discount accessibility and enjoyability as important parts of literature.
The long and short of it is that I think it is really important for us to encourage people to read quality literature.
Christine Seifert reports,
Some of the most valuable skills that managers look for in employees are often difficult to define, let alone evaluate or quantify: self-discipline, self-awareness, creative problem-solving, empathy, learning agility, adaptiveness, flexibility, positivity, rational judgment, generosity, and kindness, among others. How can you tell if your future employees have these skills? And if your current team is lacking them, how do you teach them? Recent research in neuroscience suggests that you might look to the library for solutions; reading literary fiction helps people develop empathy, theory of mind, and critical thinking.
When we read, we hone and strengthen several different cognitive muscles, so to speak, that are the root of the EQ. In other words, the act of reading is the very activity—if done right—that can develop the qualities, traits, and characteristics of those employees that organizations hope to attract and retain.
High-level business leaders have long touted the virtues of reading. Warren Buffet, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, spends most of his day reading and recommends reading 500 pages a day. Entrepreneur Mark Cuban says he reads more than three hours a day. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, says he learned to build rockets by reading books. But business visionaries who extol the virtues of reading almost always recommend nonfiction. Buffet recommended 19 books in 2019; not one of the titles is fiction. Of the 94 books Bill Gates recommended over a seven-year period, only nine of them are fiction.
When it comes to reading, we may be assuming that reading for knowledge is the best reason to pick up a book. Research, however, suggests that reading fiction may provide far more important benefits than nonfiction. For example, reading fiction predicts increased social acuity and a sharper ability to comprehend other people’s motivations. Reading nonfiction might certainly be valuable for collecting knowledge, it does little to develop EQ, a far more elusive goal.
Research suggests that reading literary fiction is an effective way to enhance the brain’s ability to keep an open mind while processing information, a necessary skill for effective decision-making. In a 2013 study, researchers examined something called the need for cognitive closure, or the desire to “reach a quick conclusion in decision-making and an aversion to ambiguity and confusion.” Individuals with a strong need for cognitive closure rely heavily on “early information cues,” meaning they struggle to change their minds as new information becomes available. They also produce fewer individual hypotheses about alternative explanations, which makes them more confident in their own initial (and potentially flawed) beliefs. A high need for cognitive closure also means individuals gravitate toward smaller bits of information and fewer viewpoints. Individuals who resist the need for cognitive closure tend to be more thoughtful, more creative, and more comfortable with competing narratives—all characteristics of high EQ.
University of Toronto researchers discovered that individuals in their study who read short stories (as opposed to essays) demonstrated a lower need for cognitive closure. That result is not surprising given that reading literature requires us to slow down, take in volumes of information, and then change our minds as we read. There’s no easy answer in literature; instead, there’s only perspective-taking. As readers, we’ll almost certainly find Lolita’s narrator Humbert Humbert odious, but we are forced to experience how he thinks, a valuable exercise for decreasing our need for cognitive closure. Furthermore, the researchers point out that when we are talking about someone else’s actions, we don’t feel compelled to defend ourselves. We can have conversations that might not happen in any other context, at least not with the same level of honesty.
But – and this is a big but – literary fiction is challenging. You don’t just jump into Lolita. Before a person can read quality lit they have to have accessible lit.
This isn’t a hugely profound point or anything. If we want people to read the good stuff, we first have to convince them that reading is worthwhile. Nobody is going to read The Remains of the Day unless they are invested in the act of reading. And that often means first appealing to their less refined interests.
Nobody starts with Milton or Chaucer. You decide you like reading and you work your way up.
And let’s be clear – I’m not saying all good lit is classic, lit either. There are lots of contemporary writers creating complex and challenging works that are high quality and just as worth reading. I’d just as soon you read Toni Morrison as John Donne. One of my favorite authors is Jhumpa Lahiri. I think she captures the human experience in a lush and real way like few other authors can and she brings the immigrant experience completely to life. But she’s not who I would recommend to a beginner reader. She’s for somebody who likes reading.
And that’s why there is value in things like I Need a New Butt. Because some kid somewhere may decide it’s worth picking up a book because that one made them laugh. That’s why even romance novels have a place in the literary world. Because it could lead someone to Jane Austen. That’s why James Patterson can’t be written off. He might be the guy who gets that teenager to pick up a book.
Twilight, however, remains trash.
So let’s not kid ourselves. There is a huge difference between Shel Silverstein and Maya Angelou. Hell, there’s a giant chasm between Shel Silverstein and Amanda Gormon. But Shel Silverstein might be a child’s first introduction to poetry. Where the Sidewalk Ends or A Light in the Attic might be the first time a kid comes across words that aren’t just plain old regular sentences on a page. It might make them curious about different ways you can play with language. It might make them more receptive to classics like “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll, and then the rhythm and musicality of Langston Hughes. So that when they come across Maya Angelou for the first time they are ready and open to the possibilities of the beauty and the power of her words. There’s a possible throughline there.
So, yes, we want people to read the proverbial good stuff. But to get there we just want them to read. Read their horror novels or their fantasy serials or their spy stories. They may never move beyond that. But you have to develop into a reader before you’re willing to read anything that gatekeepers like me deem “good.” That’s why this gatekeeper encourages people to read whatever they can get their hands on. Because you have to make it to the gate before you can walk on through.