Viewpoint: Long live the desire to read

Is the appetite for reading alive and well among the children and young people of today, or have we extinguished it in our hunt for what is good literature, worthwhile literature, the right literature? How can the slow book survive in competition with the quick-fire stimulation of the Internet and video games?

Both writers of this article’s have grown up with books – one of them as a faithful user of the local public library, where she easily borrowed four to five books at a time each week, always with the well-versed, wise and friendly guidance of the librarian; the other with a father who was a publisher and writer, and with books in every corner of the home. In many ways two extremes, but with the same outcome: a great interest and delight in literature.

Now we both have children ourselves, two seven-year-olds who have just  begun to know the joy of books, and a 15-, a 20-, a 21- and a 23-year-old who read: now and then from a desire to do so, but perhaps most often out of the need to pass exams that can open life’s doors.

Like all parents of children and young people today, we see that books have tough competition. The seven-yearolds would simply rather play Super-Mario on the iPad, and the 15-year-old would rather watch films on Netflix than read a newspaper, a novel or a textbook.

Compulsory reading

But let us not turn this into yet another discussion about the hopeless habits of children and young people and how excellent things were in the past. Let us rather talk about how we offer them literature: at school, at home and in the library.

In upper secondary school there are socalled class sets of books. They are sets consisting of 30 copies of the same book. Every school has on average perhaps 15 of these sets. They represent a selection of contemporary literature and some older literature, which largely covers the curriculum requirements regarding what children should have read while at upper secondary school.

Do we ask the young people what they would like to read? Rarely. They are each handed their book from the class set, told how long they have to read it, and given instructions on what type of homework they will get once they have read it. It may be an analysis, a book review, a summary of the plot, a book report. Do we ask whether they liked the book? Whether it made them want to read more? Seldom.

Voluntary reading

The American language and literature researcher Stephen Krashen has conducted research on what he calls “free voluntary reading”. Very briefly, this is how it goes: let the students choose a book themselves, a book that, for whatever reason, captures their interest. Let them read it with no pressure, without there being any demanding task at the other end. Then small miracles can happen.

When the shock of being able to choose a book themselves has subsided, after the unavoidable restlessness of pubertal 16-year olds has calmed – it takes about ten minutes – you can see them sitting, heads bowed over their respective books in deep concentration. The computer is switched off, mobile phones are put away, and only silence and words on a page fill their heads.

They have taken responsibility for their own reading. Or to put it more accurately: they have been given the opportunity to take responsibility for their own reading. It wasn’t the right book? Well then, you can change it. It’s okay. But they always ask permission. They are accustomed to book-reading being governed by a number of rules about what and how, but seldom any explanation of why. Let it be Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Erlend Loe’s Kurt books, Twilight, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games or Fifty Shades of Grey. 100 pages or 400 pages. Chick-lit or Charlotte Bronte.

Reading for the sake of reading

This type of approach focuses on two main areas: One is to stimulate the appetite for reading and to create – or reawaken – the child’s natural interest in storytelling. The other is to give children the chance of a breathing space in a world continually filled with input, demands on availability, noise and rapid scene-changing.

Two longer-term goals are firstly transferability, since at some time or another we have to embark on the literature that is set out in the curriculum. By then they have read, perhaps for the first time, a whole book, or even two. The other is an increased ability to concentrate.

Be prepared to meet resistance in the teachers’ staff room when you introduce this idea. It runs counter to the established view of literature teaching. No homework to do on the book, did you say? No analysis? No hunting for literary devices? Just reading for reading’s sake? Can we spend time on that? The answer is yes.We have to spend time on that.

A good librarian makes a difference

At the same time, availability and guidance are a precondition for success with a reading project of this kind. Here the librarian re-enters the picture. The librarians in our schools do a fantastic job with the means they have at their disposal. They receive whole school classes with open arms, they guide, they help and they order books. They visit classes and tell them about literature. A good librarian can make a great difference to what can be a child’s or a young person’s first encounter with literature.

Children need magic 

Others are lucky enough to have their first encounter with literature in the home. They are read to, sung to, told bedtime stories. But here, too, we can lower the threshold. It doesn’t need to be authentic literature. They don’t have to be politically correct, socially realistic books, where everyone is either starting at kindergarten, has divorced parents, or has to undergo the trauma of acquiring a little sister. Or books in which everything scary has  been made nice, where the trolls are tamed, the witches kind-hearted.

By all means do read these books as well, but do not rob children of the possibility of magic. Magic and dark forces, the classic battle between good and evil that we encounter in the folk tales do actually have an important function. Bruno Bettelheim, child psychologist and author, explains in his book The Uses of Enchantment – The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976) how the universal and timeless issues in fairy tales help children to understand and solve challenges in their own daily lives.

The encounter with and vanquishing of a troll, for example, can show the child that even big problems can be overcome. Through the symbolism of fairy tales, children can interpret and adapt the content to suit their own needs at given stages in life.

Relax and read

So don’t hide the Brothers Grimm and Asbjørnsen and Moe deep in the bookcase! Don’t think that these tales are too scary, too grotesque. Children understand that when the wolf eats grandma and Little Red Riding Hood, it isn’t real, but they want to have magic, and they need it. If they are robbed of magic as children, they will compensate for it when they reach their teens.

Perhaps there is a link between modern parents’ disparagement of folk tales and the immense fascination of young people today for the supernatural in the form of vampires, hobbits, trolls and wizards, and the many fantasy films with which Norwegian cinemas are inundated?

Reading can in itself be magical, both with and without supernatural elements, but let us not make it into an exercise in what is clever and right and educational. Lower the threshold and relax, and let small children come to literature themselves.

Secondary-school teacher
Lecturer and writer