Back to Basics: The Role of Reading… (G. Eyre)

Eyre, G. (2003). Back to basics: The role of reading in preparing young people for the information society. Reference Services Review, 31(3), 219-226. Retrieved 1/22/2008, from

In the second half of this article, Eyre builds towards the main thrust of his argument: that children are under-exposed to imaginative literature, even though studies (namely Children as Readers by Spink, 1989) show that this is key in helping them develop in the following areas: physical, intellectual, language, emotional, personality, social, moral, spiritual (221). Eyre makes a case for studies examining the potential relationship between exposure to imaginative literature and information literacy.

Perhaps more interesting than this discussion are those that set it up in the first half of the article. Eyre alludes to the changing definition of literacy and to the increased emphasis on information literacy and ICT skills in the context of the looming “information age.”

The discussion of literacy aptly reminds that “literacy is a dynamic concept and gradually, as the needs of society have evolved, the requisites of being able to function within that society have expanded and the concept of literacy has also changed to fit the bill” (221). Specifically, he points out that “At one time a person was considered literate if they could sign their own name” (221). I can’t help but think that it would be naive to believe that literacy has and always will mean what we currently think it does. (Yet another article I’ve read recently pointed out that humans have not actually been reading text for very long — certainly not long enough for us to evolve in any way to compensate or promote it. And a friend pointed out that it is only recently that the majority of (Western Hemisphere, at least) people have become readers.) It might be an interesting exercise to imagine in what ways this definition might evolve.

The definition of information literacy is also discussed. Eyre maintains that “many discourses on information literacy tend to emphasize technological requirements” while an adequate reading level (and broader literacy level) is equally central, but underrepresented. One of the cited definitions of information literacy takes on so much that it could practically be renamed “existence literacy”: “Brown (1997) argues that information literacy actually subsumes a wide variety of skills and abilities including: critical thinking, problem solving, personal, social and communication skills, library and computer literacy” (221). I would love to see CARL alter its information literacy standards so as to test levels of social skills…

Reading in trains and buses

My friend Amish and I were reminiscing a few weeks ago about some of our favourite settings for reading. He remembered blissfully a train ride across Canada, accompanied by a faithful pile of books. As for me, I had just been on a 6-hour bus trip, and felt like I had finally rediscovered the joy of reading. Looking up from my book midway, I clearly remember thinking “I’m cured!”.

(Although this intense rekindling with reading was certainly due in great part to the venue, I must admit that the content of the book, Wendy Lesser’s Nothing Remains the Same, was ideally suited for this sort of intense reading encounter.)

I certainly hope that Via Rail will raise its Internet connection rates so that, should I escape into reading by way of train one of these days, the availability of connectibility will not be too tempting. There are so few places of solace left…

When reading is unpleasurable

Is it disrespectful of the art of writing to feel that much of reading is inherently unpleasurable? Under certain circumstances (when in a hurry, when forced to do so, when someone is looking over your shoulder, when the material is poorly written, when your eyes are tired) reading can be a chore. For many (especially those with print disabilities) reading is a difficult and frustrating activity. For those who were never encouraged to do so, it is a waste of time. And for all of us, much of the reading we do (scanning junk mail and the endless listserv postings that come into our email Inbox, reading the fine print, reading office memos) is a source of irritation. So is it a stretch to think that this irritation might have an effect on our broader perception of reading?

Another notebook note

I must try to remember which of these reading led me to this thought:

Reading could be seen as much more aligned with listening than with writing, in that in reading and listening you are a receptor, a passive participant in the act, whereas with writing there is no act of receiving — you are the active party.

Strange Note

I found the following in my notebook and can’t quite understand what I meant by it:

“reading of books” ≠ reading books

How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read (P. Bayard)

This is a very amusing book to read, scan, or hear about. Bayard, a French academic, unabashedly admits that he regularly discusses books he hasn’t read, hasn’t completely read, or doesn’t remember. More interesting than this amusing admission is his more challenging claim that it is sometimes “easier to do justice to a book if you haven’t read it in its entirety” (xv). (This reminds me of an experience I had attending a screening of an art film with some friends — midway through the film I had a 20-minute snooze. Seeing as the narrative was rather sparse, I quite easily re-entered the story and the pacing of the film. When we left the theatre it became clear that I had enjoyed the film much more than any of my friends. I firmly believe that my nap-enriched viewing, despite the interruption, increased my appreciation of the film.)

Bayard describes this abnormal reading behaviour as a “forbidden subject”. He describes the “unconscious guilt of non-reading” (xvi), a concept that resonates with my own experience.

He points out quite rightly that it can be difficult to draw a line between reading and non-reading, as there are a number of different gradations from mere recognition to scanning, from quickly reading to carefully deciphering.

The passage in the first chapter describing a story by Musil might interest any librarian readers of this blog. In this story (which I have not read, but yet, neither has Bayard) a librarian describes to a patron that although he has read none of the books in the collection, he is nonetheless a very knowledgeable source about them, because he has read the spine of all of them. (I believe that the point here is something to this effect: the essence of a book is how it relates to the larger field of knowledge, and will only deliver a limited reading when read on its own.)

How to Read a Book (Adler & Van Doren) — Entry #1

Adler, M. J., & Van Doren, C. L. (1972). How to read a book (Rev. and updat ed.). New York: Simon and Schuster.

I have started reading the 1972 revised edition of this 1940 classic, curious about this oft-quoted book. Its mission is precisely what it title suggests: an analysis of how books are read (classified into four different levels) and instructions on how to become a better reader of books. However, an important distinction is made from the very start: its aim is to assist the reader who wishes to read for increased understanding, not for information or for entertainment.

I was amused to find that Adler and Van Doren referred to a 1939 article by James Murrell, “The Failure of Schools,” in which Murrell identified a familiar-sounding pattern about reading ability in the general population:

Up to the fifth and sixth grade, reading, on the whole, is effectively taiught and well learned. To that level we find a steady and general improvement, but beyond it the curves flatten out to a dead level. […] The average high-school graduate has done a great deal of readin, and if he goes on to college he will do a great deal more; but he is likely to be a poor and incompetent reader. […] It as been shown, for instance, that the average high-school student is amazingly inept at indicating the central thought of a passage,or the levels of emphasis and subordination in an argument or exposition. (quoted in Adler & Van Doren, pp.x-xi)

Murrell blamed schools for the lack of improvement in students’ reading abilitties. Adler and Van Doren seem to agree, at least in that the last of their four identified levels of reading is rarely mastered. These levels are: Elementary Reading (ability to recognize and string together written words and sentences and to extract the surface meaning); Inspectional Reading (ability to skim, get the gist of a book in a limited amount of time); Analytical Reading (ability to extract the larger points made by a text) and finally, Syntoptical Reading (complex, systematic, comparative reading — the ability to read a book while holding it in a larger context — or, the ability to read more than one book at a time) (pp.17-18).

I am also thankful to this book for having offered me a useful and concrete recommendation (in the art of Inspectional Reading) that I can apply immediately to this reading course:

The first thing to do when you have amassed your bibliography is to inspect all of the books on your list. You should not read any of them analytically before inspecting all of them. (p.314)

Indeed, several of the works I have consulted so far make a similar point: that it is just as important to know when not to read a book as it is to read it. Or, as Adler and Van Doren put it, that one needs to know “how to read some books faster than others” (p.315).