Last year I gave a lecture at one of Sweden’s folk high schools on the subject of reading and writing disabilities. Judging from my own personal experience of dyslexia and the discussions I have had with like-minded, a distinct pattern began to emerge as to how negative reading strategies take shape within us from an early stage: due to reading difficulties – in my case decoding difficulties – I soon fell behind those of my own age. Despite this, homework was expected to be handed in on time and as the length of the assignments grew, the more daunting the task became. I was able to cope with some of them, but the stakes were far higher than ever the dividends were. A consequence of this became an evolvement of a negative attitude towards reading. I became an ‘active non-reader’, deliberately avoiding the act of reading. As time passed my friends began to read more of their own free will.
During those years when young people devour books, they read more, perhaps a hundred times more, during their spare time than ever they do at school. My reading habits had not yet become automated and therefore a gap soon developed between me and my friends. I not only fell behind in my schoolwork, but also out of the new social framework that had emerged among those of my age and which had become increasingly literary.
Firstly, what happens is that I as a pupil am denied the adventurous, thrilling stories that my friends are experiencing. Secondly, due to the enforced requirement to read compulsory texts, of the homework kind, I develop a passive attitude towards reading. I expect that anything that is said can be found somewhere in the mush of letters. This denies me acquiring the ability to read between the lines. Nor do I pluck up the courage to draw my own conclusions or criticise the contents of a text. Thirdly, for the same reasons, I remain unaware of my own reading behaviour and fail to understand the social consequences this gives rise to – the fact that my friends and I ‘grow apart’. Finally, and fourthly, my low selfesteem manifests itself even more.
During the intermission that followed the lecture I struck up a conversation with three 30-year old students attending the school’s course in reading and writing. They were enthusing over the fact that they had read their first book – Benny Boxaren by Max Lundgren.
“We were down the pub the other night, enjoying a pint and about an hour later I finally caught on to what we were doing. We were discussing the book! Imagine the missus finding out her old man’s down the pub discussing literature,” one of them said laughing.
Their behaviour pinpoints the very essence. Firstly, they had experienced an adventurous story. Secondly, they realised that without their own involvement, the story could not be concluded, and it needed interpretation, thereby activating them as readers. And fourthly, they showed pride at having gained this piece of insight about themselves. In other words, they had changed their attitude in one sweep and were now ready for a ‘second chance’. If the right opportunity had presented itself from the beginning, they might not have had to go the ‘full nine yards’ battling words and letters as adults.
Having spent twenty years debating such questions as to why reading and writing difficulties exist has convinced me that it is mainly a political issue. The availability of alternative options when consuming written texts, including text books and teaching aids, must be seen as a democratic right. Young people – before their ‘devouring’ period sets in – and adults, who fall behind their own age groups in reading ability need to be offered recorded versions of text-based information and teaching aids. This is presently being done best in the international standardised format, DAISY. As such I can easily, using a walkman or a computer, listen to the texts I am not able to read myself. The computer also offers its user the tools to combine text and sound, highlighting the text simultaneously to it being marked on the screen. If I am given the option to alternate between listening and reading, I might stand a reasonable chance to actually understand what is being said. My grasp of the Swedish language increases even as I listen to texts, as it enables me to get in touch with new words and the more advanced sentence structures. Simply put, I learn to read by reading/listening. This is within the limits technically and financially, but even more so, democratically.
Alas, to become a reader – someone who reads of their own free will – I need suitable literature, stories of a suitable length, appealing layout and contents (preferably with existential layers) that correspond to my age and intellectual level. An important task is acquiring the knowledge held by librarians and teachers and channelling that into obtaining books whose language and formation are comprehensive and captivating much the way Benny Boxaren was to the three beer-drinking ‘literary critics’ from the folk high school.
Translated by Jonathan Pearman
Portrait by Erik Öhman