The joys of reading

by Jini Stolk

Something’s wrong. How can it be that a light and breezy article about summer reading includes a tip like this: “Any book, which enhances knowledge. No fiction.”(The grammatical and punctuation mistakes might indicate that this tweeter needs to read more fiction, not less…)

This war on fiction comes up more and more often. Some CEO’s are proudly too busy to read anything but nonfiction; people say that time is too short, and their need for information too great, to read novels.

An essay in the June issue of The Atlantic, reviewing two new studies of “the novel”, is an almost unbelievably engrossing and moving piece on how books and readers shape each other. William Deresiewicz describes the way great novelists, by continually reinventing the form, also reinvented what it means to read, and to learn about the world and ourselves through reading. Novels are exceptionally good, he says, at making us feel what it’s like to inhabit a character’s mind.

I hope the anti-fiction attitude is not seeping down to children, although I fear it might be. The Action for Children’s Arts was moved a few years ago to draw up a manifesto on children’s rights to arts and culture, including the simple statement that Every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts. La Baraca’s interesting Charter of children’s rights to art and culture is more detailed.

Richard Griffiths, who starred as the teacher in The History Boys, said in an interview: “The inculcating of enthusiasm for intellectual ideas and improvement of the human condition, what is it to be in love, what is it to discover the meaning of loyalty, treachery, cruelty, kindness, sweetness, sourness – these things shape every one of us for the rest of our lives, and they’re not debated any more, they’re not understood any more, they’re not addressed any more by the school curriculum.” He says that the educational establishment has moved away from dealing with this type of knowledge because “there isn’t an exam for it.”

Except, he adds, “The exam is life.”


Further reading (not novels!)

The Novel: A Biography by Michael Schmidt, Harvard/Belknap

What Writers Can Learn From ‘Goodnight Moon’ By Aimee Bender,

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