Does Reading Hurt ?


On Pleasure


Along with my long-time colleague, Josie Billington, I ran a session about the work of The Reader Organisation at The Royal Society for Public Health’s Conference on Arts In Health this week. Here we are leaving the pre-conference dinnner! Look at those doors – it was worth going just for them, though the food was pretty good, too. Pleasure! It’s a great leveller.


In our session, we introduced the thinking behind the Reading Revolution, and we read a poem. I’ll write about the body of the session (Oh! The Danger! The Risk!) another time, but meanwhile I want to write about thoughts prompted by the woman who, as we sat in our circle reading and talking abut Louis MacNeice’s poem ‘Snow’, suddenly said ‘ Learning to read can be painful… for a lot of people it’s a long process of being in the wrong…’


Early in the session I had been talking about the fact that quite aside from the fifth of the adult population who can’t read, many adults never read any fiction, and most adults never read poetry and the majority of the population never read the greatest literature. (I know, I know: I’ve used the dangerous superlative. Well, there you are. I’ve used it and I stand by it.) From an evolutionary point of view, this is a waste of resource. We’ve got great consciousnesses of the past available, directly accessible through text – Homer, say, Rumi, or Dante, or Wordsworth. And for most of us they might as well not exist.


The woman who spoke about the pain of learning to read looked troubled, even pained. I felt I had caught the drift of her not-fully-expressed thought, that the process of acquiring mastery of the technique was deeply and pervasively traumatic, so of course we grow up to be a nation who don’t like reading. Ow, she is right, I thought, and it’s just plain wrong that it should be like this.


Yes, most of us suffer it. Those who do well academically get over it – though do we ever do more than grow extra skin over those traumatic places? It might be more accurate to say that those who do well academically cover it over. Ask someone to read aloud in public and very often they become again the struggling nine year old who did not want to be put on the spot. This person has now grown up to be a very successful adult, a Chief Fire Officer, a Psychiatrist, a Restaurateur, a Marketing Director, a Public Health Commissioner. But only those who have subsequently developed a highly successful relationship with print won’t be thrown by reading aloud in public. As for the majority, who did not succeed academically, they at least are free to say, as many people do say to me, ‘I don’t like reading. I hated it at school. They make you feel an idiot.’


I thought of my grandson Leo, who has loved books and stories from a few months of age, but who, having started school, said to me ‘They are trying to get me to read’ in the resigned tone of an agent under torture. He knew they would go on until they got what they wanted from him. And yet it is not six months since we spent more than 20 minutes looking at just one page of Dr Seuss’s Sneetches. Leo was ‘reading’ the picture and describing its complex intricacies to himself/me. Every time I tried to turn over he would cry out with real frustration ‘ Not yet! I haven’t finished this page!’


And now, subdued, ‘they are trying to get me to read.’


Can he be given the reading equivalent of the RSPH’s doors, for god’s sake? Can he be given the book version of the RSPH pre-Conference dinner? Can school allow him to enjoy himself? Lucky boy, he’s getting a lot of that at home, so school won’t do too much damage. But is this the way to go on?


Of course, the discipline of mastering a difficult technique is hard to learn. Is five too young to introduce such discipline? Certainly if our literacy stats are anything to go by it isn’t positively working. We need to put a lot more energy and effort into reading to and with children, to them, giving them great stories that make the acts of discipline seem worth it. As Bruno Bettelheim argues in The Uses of Enchantment, and On Learning To Read, and as my weekly reading group at Chester Drug and Alcohol Service recently told me, it is meaning that makes it worthwhile. ‘What do you fancy reading?’ I’d asked. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ they’d eventually decided, ‘ so long as it’s something we can really think about’.


Reading is – after eating and sex – the most creative and social of human activities. It allows us to experience the experience of others, heart to heart, mind to mind, brain to brain directly, via the medium of written language and through the deepest of learning mechanisms, pleasure. And though superficially it seems to come less naturally than eating and sex, I wonder if reading literary text is really a just complex version of what it is like to be human in world? Isn’t our experience of consciousness, our creative desire to know and understand the world, our looking at it and seeking its patterns, the same thing as reading?Look at Chester below, reading his penguin book. That’s just basic human enquiry, isn’t it?


Chester, age 6 months

A characteristic outcome of someone being a member of a Get Into Reading group is that they start to love reading, and that reading in the group often leads to individuals reading outside of the group. I am sure this is to do with reactivating the pleasure that is so easily lost, or for many never actually found, in the process of learning to read.


Dr George Scott Williamson, co-founder of The Peckham Experiment, had interesting thoughts about this. He believed that our biology had set us up to learn what we needed and that if left to have our own responsibility for learning, in an environment where others modelled such learning (e.g. a visible swimming bath at the centre of the building so non-swimmers could naturally observe others swimming) people would – if left alone to make their own minds up – then learn. In the Peckham Experiment both adults and children did choose to learn. So I am wondering if we turned schools into places where a lot of reading goes on, where lots of books are available, where adults are seen to read – sadly not usually the case – would children learn to read more easily?


I’d like a Reading Apprentice in every primary school. A young person, preferably a Care-leaver, whose job it is to simply sit around reading, to themselves and others. At the Reader Organisation, we have one young person, Eamee Boden, whose job it is to do just this. We’re raising money for another such apprenticeship. £14,000 p.a. Like to contribute, or know a man who would? Contact

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