Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Literacy, Literature, and the like

Tricia called our attention this morning to yet another article in The Guardian on boys and reading, this one focusing on the difference between fostering literacy and fostering a love of literature. It raises a provocative question: "What good is the Bard to book-shunning boys?" But I think "the Bard" is something of a red herring here. The article suggests that trying to interest boys in Shakespeare through comics is a missed opportunity, since live performance is really a better way to promote an interest in Shakespeare (or any other playwright). Point taken.

But the larger question, as Tricia notes, is this: "Why do we still confuse the need for literacy with the experience of reading, and even more important to some, loving a canon?"

I think this goes back to something I've talked about before. It's actually not at all clear to me that all reading is good. Yes, everyone (in our culture) needs a certain level of baseline literacy, in order to fill out forms, read the fine print, use the computer, etc. But I think it's also pretty clear that certain kinds of reading--novel reading, for example--are associated with success in school. Is this because we haven't yet figured out how to test and/or reward other kinds of literacy, or because novel-reading actually makes you smarter? As an English professor, I'm inclined towards the latter view. It's certainly the case that novel-reading makes you a better writer (and the "better" the novel--the more complex, the more challenging the vocabulary, etc.--the better). I think it makes you a more thoughtful, empathic, creative, and subtle person as well, but I'm not sure I can prove that. I'm all for developing literacy, in other words, but I am not at all satisfied to stop there.

Now, that said, I don't think reading Shakespeare is necessarily the way to go, especially with teen readers. There are plenty of terrific, challenging, thoughtful novels for teen and younger readers that will both foster a love of reading and develop their intelligence. And, as Louise Tucker suggests, maybe they should also go see a play every now and then.

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