Fat-Free-Literature, the quick way to kill a reading habit.

This week a statistic was given claiming that 10% of people in the UK have no books.   Really?  Not even something technical, about cooking, or a car manual?

Well, so the Aviva insurance company say.

I have friends who don’t own books, but most of them have kindles.  Some other friends keep their books under the stairs, or tidied away in cupboards.  There’s no reason why we should all be the same, and yet…stories.

bookshelfWe can’t live without them, can we?  Do you know anyone who will not tell you the story of what they did, an hour, day, week, month or year ago?

To not own a book does not necessarily mean an absence of fiction.  Stories come in so many media that we are surrounded by them.  85% of 8 – 15 year-olds own a game console.  Most games are interactive stories.

On Sunday morning I was listening to Will Self’s,A Point of View, broadcast on Radio 4.  He was talking about ‘Teaching to the Test’.  Amongst other worries he had about how education works, he discussed the teaching of literature.  Children are no longer expected to read whole texts – so they, the children, claim.  Teachers give them summaries of a novel and tell them which sections will contain the best quotes.

One of my nieces did this with Wuthering Heights, a few years ago, and recently another niece did the same with Jane Eyre.  I tried to persuade both that it was worth reading the whole novel from beginning to end.  ‘There’s no need,’ they said. Both were/are attending good schools, one a comprehensive and one a grammar, so I can’t blame a single teacher.  Which means this must be the system.

Somewhere though, if we trace this system back, was there a teacher with simmering resentments against books?  I can’t think that anyone with a love of literature would have created a system that seems designed to belittle the joys of immersing one’s self in a fictional world.  We don’t have to love all books, but surely we need to be exposed to full novels when we are young.

To be taught that all we ever need is a summary, is to reduce story.  Wuthering Heights unfolds through a series of questionable narrators, leading us to form judgements about actions and consequences. We get to know and understand what, how and why they respond to their situations as they do.  I didn’t ‘love’ Jane Eyre, but by the end of the novel, I understood her world, and I believe my world was a little broader for having done so.

Show us how to read whole books, and we’ll go on to read more, and more widely.  We’ll read with and against the flow of society.

Dumb the reading process down, and you reduce our ability to explore.  If the Bronte’s seem too out-dated for modern minds, why not set some texts that young adults can identify with?  Don’t, for goodness sake, spoil the immersive experience of discovering the gothic and other wonders of our past.  Leave them alone.  Eventually a keen reader will stumble upon them somehow.

For women, one or the other of the Bronte novels usually seems to speak to us: only to us.  How can that be possible with a book that was written in 1840s?  You’d have to read the whole thing to work that out.







17 thoughts on “Fat-Free-Literature, the quick way to kill a reading habit.

    • I don’t believe that can happen, either. But I don’t see the sense in force-feeding simplified literature to children. I can’t see how it benefits them. I’m certain they could learn the technical aspects of writing by looking at modern authors.


  1. I can understand that they don’t expect modern kids to read Jane Eyre – but then, why set it as an exam piece? Like you say, pick something more modern. They can tackle older stuff later. Maybe they do need to be able to summarise books – but this way is a nonsense. A cheat, in fact, we would have thought when we were doing our exams. That’s how we revised for the exam, not how we looked at the book in class.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting topic, Cath. Back in 1964/5, my reading matter for the year was David Coppefield. We read a little in class but had no time to complete it. Our teacher handed out a chapter synopsis. At least this way, I, and maybe others, had a chance of passing the exam. I did. But maybe the system now, as then, is designed to validate statistics more than providing education, and a love of the written word.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can see how running out of time could be a reason for having to summarise something at the end of the course, but still can’t see how the course can be called literature if the whole system is based on summaries. That would seem to suggest that the students are being expected to look at too many texts in the first place. Maybe less is more?

      I think the fault lies in the fact that essays don’t ask for personal responses. So long as there is a ‘list’ of suitable responses that students need to ‘find’, they need only be given the run-down of correct responses, and hints about where to find them, and which bits to quote. I’m not sure if that is education, or learning by rote.


  3. I find your post unsettling Cath, more so perhaps because of all the unpalatable changes that are being forced upon us at the moment. It speaks to me of a society which cannot concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes at a time. One which engages in soundbites and slogans rather than conversations. Indeed I see signs of it in my own behaviour.

    Does this matter? Am I just hankering after a bygone time and reluctant to embrace change? I don’t believe I am. I feel I have fully engaged with this technological age – there are many benefits to it- but I still feel it will be a sad place if we can’t check out from time to time and, as you say, immerse ourselves in literature.

    As for passing exams, it doesn’t surprise me that teachers are employing such radical short cuts. It’s all about meeting targets in schools. As long as your league table looks healthy, who cares whether your students have an in depth knowledge of iconic authors. I agree that providing fewer, more relevant books would work better. My niece read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and was moved to many a discussion on equality and human rights as a result.

    I suppose my concern is that we will all become skaters on the surface of life without ever looking into the mysterious and exciting depths beneath. And we need to be encouraged to broaden our horizons, as you were after a spell in the company of Jane and Mr Rochester.

    Predictably, I love the diet industry metaphor and your challenge at the end of the piece. I do hope we don’t become a nation of literary emaciation, restricting our wordcounts as we are urged to do our calories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The thing is, I was aware of us moving towards this when I was at school, all that time ago, and I think our generation may have been at the end of that full-text era. If I’m right, this means its been going on for so long that it’s already become ‘natural’.

      I think it’s what you say in your last but one paragraph that really concerns me. Social media seems to aim us exactly towards being …dare I say, shallow? Or maybe I’m just a grumpy old woman – I did get patronised by a woman in the bank the other day because I didn’t want to make an electronic transaction…it quite made my day, believe it or not, made me giggle all the way to the bookshop.


  4. My son’s school recently had a literacy information session for parents to explain the importance of reading. They touched on ‘whole book reading’ and said young readers learn traits like understanding motivation, cause and effect, resilience and empathy when they experience a character’s journey from beginning to end.

    Sadly, the only parents who turned up to the session were ones who already value reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That sounds horribly like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Both my nieces were big readers at Junior school, and the one continues to read as an adult, so I know that she still loves fiction, but will she ever explore the classics? I like to hope so.

      It’s always the people who miss that early exposure to the joy of a good book that I feel sorry for. We used to have a session at the end of most junior school days when the teacher read us a chapter from a children’s classic. It was probably only ten minutes, but I think that was a part of where my own enjoyment of story came from. I got introduced to a wide range of authors I might not otherwise have stumbled across, and afterwards, I borrowed many of them to read for myself. I look back to that as a valuable part of my school experience.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Been wondering for some time if story abuse – commercials, political broadcasts, news that isn’t – has affected our appetite for fiction. Perhaps we need some new creation myths … scientifically based, of course!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I can see how running out of time could be a reason for having to summarise something at the end of the course, but still can’t see how the course can be called literature if the whole system is based on summaries. Maybe they do need to be able to summarise books – but this way is a nonsense.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It horrifies me, there’s nothing I love more than unravelling a text. Summarising reduces that process down to one person’s interpretations, and certainly cannot encourage children to think for themselves.


  7. Pingback: What I was taught, when I listened… | Cath Humphris

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