An Adversarial Relationship Between Reader and Text

book-chair-chat-711009At a workshop in Singapore last weekend for the new IB DP Language & Literature course guide, I came across the following sentence from a student example essay in the workshop materials.

“The reader simply cannot deduce what [the chapter titles] could [mean], effectively forcing the reader to keep turning the page.”

For me, the image of a reader hypnotically paging through a book against his will or even pitted against it in heated battle is a funny one. I picture Bruce Campbell’s Ash facing down the Necronomicon in one of the Evil Dead films, but there are Harry Potter associations that work just as well here.

The idea that texts must first capture and then actively maintain their readers’ attention is a common trope in student textual analysis. “The imagery grabs the reader’s attention,” students often write, or “The use of symbols keeps the reader’s interest.” When I read a sentence like this, I have to wonder what is happening to a reader to necessitate such hyper-vigilance on the part of writers and other creators of texts. Why is the reader’s attention to the act of reading so tenuous? Is he trying to engage with the text while people are firing Nerf guns at his head?

Yeah, in some ways, he probably is. As teachers, we know that many students are not regular consumers of the written word, choosing instead to spend large amounts of their time interacting with the screens of their electronic devices. Even when they do read in a more traditional sense, they often do so while listening to music, scrolling through social media posts, or exchanging text messages with their friends. They might as well be reading in a room full of juggling, unicycling circus performers or at a fireworks show.

Look, this isn’t some idealistic diatribe against technology. It doesn’t particularly matter how I or anyone else feels about electronic devices. The point I’m making here is that reading a book probably does seem for students like a tedious alternative to the far-more-exciting multisensory immersion they experience with their computers, tablets, and phones. And I think that’s reflected in how students write about reading. For them, reading is an act of concentration, during which one’s attention must be gotten and kept. It’s something that feels to them like a lot of work.

I happen to believe that the sustained concentration required by close reading is an important skill for students in becoming better at thinking, predicting, linking, and transferring their understanding. I think that something is lost if students are giving small amounts of their attention to myriad competing stimuli instead of undivided attention to a singular focused pursuit like reading.

But what do we do about this as teachers? I’d say make room at school for some quiet reading time free of the myriad technological distractions of students’ own bedrooms. Make sure students are engaged in reading in class rather than assuming it will happen at home. Keep up to date on what writers and researchers are saying about this subject. I’d recommend Maryanne Wolf’s 2018 book Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World as a good place to get started.

I know we talk about wanting kids to develop a love of reading. That’s certainly well-intentioned and aspirational, and when it happens it’s wonderful. For me, I’d settle for having students understand that the benefits of reading are worth the amount of effort it requires.

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