Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Thoughts on Reading — As I Head off to BEA

Inner Emotional Experience

When I was speaking at Toms River the other day, someone in audience spoke up to define what reading means to her — and what she feels teachers must impart to students. Reading, she observed, creates an "inner emotional experience." That quiet, internal, resonance and reflection is the treasure of reading. She wants her middle schoolers and teenagers to experience that almost meditative state, and books are the vehicles for providing it. She is a senior educator and clearly a thoughtful reader, and yet I disagreed with her. Giving kids a pathway to an inner emotional experience is a worthy goal, a step in their psychological development, their maturation, even their steps towards responsibility in the world. But I cannot see why we would freight reading, decoding letters on a page, with that mission.

We do charge Social Studies with preparing students for citizenship — that is one reason why it is not called "history" — we are not just teaching about the past, but about government, rights, voting, acting in the world. But precisely because Social Studies has that larger mission, it calls on many disciplines. If "reading" is actually meant to be social-psychological-development, then it should not be the sole province of English teachers and librarians. School psychologists, ministers, coaches, and certainly parents should be part of the team. But we don’t do that. We don’t team teach reading as reflection. Instead, we complain that students don’t read — that is seek out an inner emotional experience.

At that same event, a librarian asked me what to do if a boy is carrying his catalog of cars, or gaming players, and his mother insists that he read a "real" book. I said, ask her what her husband reads. It is strange that in almost any sphere other than reading, if you say "he takes after his father" that is generally a compliment — chip off the old block. If a boy "takes after his mother" parents might get anxious — except in the area of reading. There, somehow, the pursuit of the "inner emotional experience" is seen as a prime, unquestioned, value — associated with being a good student, a well-rounded human being. "Pleasure" reading, then, is reading which causes interesting, enrichening, inner reflection and associations ("that’s me," "i’m just like that," "how true). Why, I wonder, do we never hear about "pleasure thinking" or "pleasure acting" — there is pleasure in using your mind, and pleasure in gaining tools to act in the world — tools like a catalog of your favorite characters. 

More anon after I visit BEA.