This sounds like a really obvious question but, after listening to Frank Furedi at researchED on Saturday and subsequently reading his book, The Power of Reading: from Socrates to Twitter, I’ve realised it isn’t something I’ve given much thought. At one point during his lecture Frank said that few of the people interested in the teaching of reading actually value passing on a love of reading. My initial reaction was to reject this. I asked a question afterwards to challenge this view and his response was to ask why so few young people – especially boys – value reading if we actually value passing on a love of reading? Surely what we really valued ought to be what children learn?

Having become a keen observer of my emotional reactions to ideas I find challenging, I recognise that just as Francis Bacon suggested, I prefer to believe what I prefer to be true. But over the past couple of days I’ve forced myself to consider the possibility that I don’t really value passing on a love of reading.

Looking back at all I’ve written about reading, it’s certainly true that my main justification for focussing on improving students’ ability to comprehend texts has been instrumentalist: what does reading enable us to do? Instead, Furedi suggests that few advocates for reading adopt “the humanist approach that regards reading as valuable; instead they endorse literacy as a useful skill that provides the reader with important social and economic benefits. (p. 204)” He cites, for instance, the DfE’s 2012 publication, Research Evidence on Reading for Pleasure which he points out “cannot actually bring itself to state that the pleasure of reading is good in and of itself” (p. 203) instead merely offering the rather bland conclusion that “evidence suggests that reading for pleasure is an activity that has emotional and social consequences” (whatever that means) and is “associated with higher scores in reading assessments.” (p. 3)

Furedi believes we’ve focused too much on the skills which constitute reading and too little on the actual content that is being read. He says,

Literacy comes into its own when what people read matters to them. Writing and reading are not simply techniques of communication and reading is not purely a skill that allows individuals to decode a text. Readers gain meaning from their experience through engaging with the content, and how people read is influenced by the wider cultural attitudes towards literacy. (p. 202)

‘Functional literacy’ – the ability to read well enough to perform a job effectively – became a matter of public concern from the 1940s onward. From then to now, literacy has come to be seen as  “essential for the conduct of economic activity” and reading has been reduced to “a technical skill with applications limited to job-related pursuits.” (p. 173)

This is a pale, utilitarian vision of what can be an immersive, almost addictive activity. If all we value – or all we talk about valuing – are the perceived benefits of reading, does it matter what is read? If students’ experience of reading is focussed on paragraphs scissored from their original context and pasted onto worksheets they may well learn to analyse literature, but will they learn to love it? Will they learn to appreciate that “reading – especially serious reading – is itself a culturally beneficial activity”? (p. 209)

There are several possible reasons why, despite our best intentions, so many young people don’t read for pleasure. One is that if reading is too much like hard work it’s unlikely to be fun. This is something which can probably be solved through better instruction.

Another, more intractable problem, may be that children’s experiences at school have taught them that reading is neither worthwhile nor fun, and maybe this has more to do with what they’ve been asked to read then how we’ve gone about teaching them? If there’s any truth is this, the solution could be to move away from the drudgery of reading for purpose and raise our expectations of what’s possible. We should celebrate great content – that which we find most beautiful, stirring and profound – for its own sake, not (just) because of its cultural capital, not(just) because it expands our knowledge of the world and certainly not (just) because it’s in the exam.

Here are a few quotes from people who seem to have understood what I’m grappling with:

The light that radiates from the great novels time can never dim, for human existence is perpetually being forgotten by man and thus the novelists’ discoveries, however old they may be, will never cease to astonish.

Milan Kundera

There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away nor any coursers like a page of prancing poetry.

Emily Dickinson

A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.

Ezra Pound

To sit alone in the lamplight with a book spread out before you hold intimate converse with men of unseen generations — such is pleasure beyond compare.

Yoshida Kenko

To feel most beautifully alive means to be reading something beautiful, ready always to apprehend in the flow of language the sudden flash of poetry.

Gaston Bachelard

And imagine inspiring young people to feel the way Elizabeth Barrett Browning describes in The Library in the Garret!

Books, books, books! I had found the secret of a garret-room Piled high with cases in my father’s name; Piled high, packed large, — where, creeping in and out Among the giant fossils of my past, Like some small nimble mouse between the ribs Of a mastodon, I nibbled here and there At this or that box, pulling through the gap, In heats of terror, haste, victorious joy, The first book first. And how I felt it beat Under my pillow, in the morning’s dark, An hour before the sun would let me read! My books!

In Part 2 I’ll explore Furedi’s thinking on the ‘medicalisation’ of reading and look at how we might do a better job of fostering a love of reading in our students.