To many, this is a question that is easy to answer. Ask any book lover and they will tell you the wonders of reading Dickens, Austen or Shakespeare. However, what is never really discussed are the reasons why. Book lovers, myself included, tend to forget that the applicable skills we gained from studying literature are not always visible and tend to insist on reading simply because it’s good.
Try to explain to a 15 or 16-year-old why reading Alfred Lloyd Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is just as important as revising for their upcoming Physics or Media exam and all you will be met with is a furrowed brow and polite nodding of the head. After all, they’re just simple books, right? For most GCSE students, they aren’t even that. These texts are minor annoyances thrust upon them by their teachers that are all too soon forgotten the moment that exam season is over.
A passion for reading is something that educators strive to engrain in children from the moment they enter into the world of education at three years old. Children are taught to read such classics as The Very Hungry Caterpillar or We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (both fantastic stories) and from there on in are provided with a plethora of opportunities to devour as many books as possible, going on to more challenging reads and more engaging stories such as Tolkien’s classic The Hobbit and Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights. This is a good thing, as many young children that I have worked with love to read and regularly share their experiences of reading with me and others in a wonderful frenzy of bliss as they are taken on new experiences by their favourite authors. Yet when it comes to adolescents, that childhood wonder and passion is lessened. It is diminished by years of daily English lessons in school and hours spent trawling over long, complicated passages of text from novels that – to the uninitiated – are at best difficult to comprehend and at worst tedious to read.
I think this sharp decline in the enjoyment of reading can be traced to two main factors. The first is a mitigating one that we as educators can do very little about. As children grow into adulthood it is inevitable that they will go on to pursue new interests and forego some of the activities that they enjoyed as children. Unfortunately, reading is often a casualty of their newfound interests as they grow older and desire new experiences. While this is sad to see for us as teachers, and particularly those who have retained a love of reading, it is something that we can do little about. All we can do is hope that in later life an author will come along who can reignite their lost childhood passion.
However, the second factor that sees interest in reading lessen over time is one that can be placed solely at our feet. Reading books is an intimately private affair, we chose the books that we like from a variety of genres and authors, we may prefer drama or poetry over the novel, we may avoid romance while embracing realism and eschew science-fiction but fall in love with fantasy. However, in our formative years, many books are thrust upon us; and teenage children are often made to read books that they not only may find difficult; but that they may also find little relevance in reading.
When young people ask me why they are learning about Pride and Prejudice or a Christmas Carol or the poetry of Carol Anne Duffy I often struggle to answer them because technically, they don’t need to have an in-depth understanding of the life and times of Elizabeth Bennet or know what happens to Tiny Tim after Scrooge’s epiphany. The minutiae of narratives are not particularly crucial to our futures and instead serve as sources of entertainment for readers. But the skills that are required to appreciate these novels are important. As Ali Smith said in The New Statesman ‘The Novel matters because Donald Trump.’ Now while she – nor I for that matter – are by no means suggesting that reading is a sole vehicle for political criticism, Smith is arguing that reading, and specifically for her, the novel as an art form, is something that can not only give us pleasure but can also teach us to think critically, to evaluate and reconsider what we see and hear from our leaders.
This is just one of the key skills that reading can provide us with. The study of English Literature is not just about reading books, it is a means to equip us with essential skills and attributes that will benefit us long after we have put a book down or long after our students walk out of the school gates for the last time. Getting young people to read can not only increase their comprehension, but it can also aid their understanding of the world, allow them to engage in complex theoretical and critical thinking, locate and utilize evidence in an argument and write concisely for a range of audiences and purposes. While I’m sure there are more skills that reading Literature can give us, my overall point is that studying the English language through its literature is pivotal, not to force canonical texts onto a new generation or continue to propagate works that fit our own personal tastes, but to give young people a skill set that will help them navigate not only higher education as they progress through college and university, but also as they begin their careers afterward.
So, if you are a tutor or a teacher of English, the next time you set a book or ask for an analysis of a piece of poetry make sure your students know why. If we can transmit the rationale for reading to students, they might be a little more receptive to our passions. No student should be made to do something simply because we tell them so, and if we can equip our young people with just a little more knowledge about why they must dive into centuries-old Renaissance poetry or obscure Victorian literature, they may just find an appreciation in the subject we book lovers so very much.