Afternoon InquisitionParentingSkepticism

Afternoon Inquisition 1.3

In the course of perusing the comments on Masala Skeptic’s now infamous Twilight review, I noticed the following from commenter coreyjf (whose blog assures us that he is not in fact the ’80s actor of the same name):

…as a former teacher, I don’t care what they are reading as long as they keep doing it. At the very least it builds reading comprehension.

I want to agree, but I’m not quite there, and I think this deserves further discussion separate from the whole Twilight debate.

Does the act of reading have innate value over and above the subject matter being read? Should we be encouraging reading for the sake of reading?

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41 Comments

  1. Yes, I think so. Literacy is a worthwhile skill. And the ability to read (and write), enhances communication skills. Reading anything improves the skill, which can be used to read other things in the future. Reading the King James Bible as a child, which I now consider to be a waste of time on a philosophical and moral level, made it easy for me to understand Shakespeare in high school, and also helped me to understand German grammar later on.

  2. That’s such a fantastic question, and one I’ve been thinking about a lot recently (due to the very same Twilight question). I’ve always had a negative reaction to the idea that simply reading anything is better than reading nothing. For instance, reading People magazine is somehow inherently better than watching Citizen Cane, to use extreme examples.

    So, I suspect that books like Twilight fall somewhere nearer to People magazine on the spectrum. They are products, not literature, designed to sell kids something instead of deliver any kind of literary merit.

    On the other hand, that sounds really snobby.

  3. Sure. Any reading is better than none. There’s more benefit in some material than others, though. On the high-quality end of the spectrum, you have traditional literature. “Twilight” is somewhat lower on the scale but still pretty reasonable. TXT WUD PROLLY B WURST LOL

  4. My totally unscientific opinion tells me that reading for the sake of reading would in fact improve the overall skill of reading itself. However it might not improve vocabulary or intellect. That being sai sometimes trash can serve the purpose of generating discussion or helping us recognize that which is not trash and appreciate it. Not to mention, sometimes your brain just needs a larf.

  5. I think it does matter what is being read, since many publications are written at a lower reading level to get a broader audience. The question that could be asked is the reader actually learning from said material. Dick and Jane would hardly lubricate the cogs in the mind of a grad student for example.

  6. As a person who likely didn’t read anywhere near as much or as high-quality material as he likely should have as a kid, I tink my comperhenshun’s purty gud. A lot of what I read was science fiction, mostly BattleTech novels (robot nerd FTW), including material by Michael Stackpole.

    I’ve been kinda lazy when it comes to reading since I started college, and am now regretting it as my grades slip because I can’t keep up with some of the more advanced material. I’m getting back into the game now with the recent closeout of a local B. Dalton Express (Carl Sagan for $4? Win!) and a subscription to Aviation Week Magazine (Space Robot Nerd FTW!). I feel better already.

    The moral of the story? Read, for cryin’ out loud! Even if it is cheesey sci-fi or silly magazines, the associations made in the brain between words and their meanings are very important not only for reading comprehension, but also for your ability to speak and conjure up 25-cent words to impress your friends. Failure to maintain these associations can lead to their breaking down, as evidenced by my own periodic inability to form words while trying to sell people RadioShack’s obviously superior electronics product.

    Encouraging others to read helps as well. Having discussions about the quality of the material will allow them (and you) to identify quality wordage for years to come.

    One thing I don’t get though: FireFox underlines “cheesey” as a misspelling, but not “wordage?” I thought I’d made that word up!

  7. During one of the most important interviews of my life, I was asked what my hobby was. I answered that it was reading. The person who held the fate of three people in her hands looked at me and said, “You mean, like books?” She could not grasp that anyone would want to read for enjoyment.

    Reading is, IMO, a “gateway drug.” It starts you on a path toward discovery and critical thinking. My wife used to take our boys (then 6 and 7 years old) to the library each week, along with a laundry basket. The boys could take as many books out as they were able to read in a week. The librarians were, at first, skeptical but came to greet the boys each week with suggestions of books they might like. Neither of them grew up to be Phd’s, but both of them learned the power of the written word.

    No, Dick and Jane will not fulfill the needs of a graduate student, bit reading anything that interests you might lead you to become a graduate student.

    Just one of the risks you take.

  8. Reading for the sake of reading is essential. When I was a kid we had to go to the library several times a week to satiate my book needs. Our local library was pretty small so I read virtually every book in the kids and young adult sections within a few years. And many of those books were terrible. Do you remember reading “Choose your own Adventure” books. Not exactly high class literature.

    My parents didn’t care what I was reading so long as it was happening. (I’d headed over the the adult section before I was ten). They didn’t force literature on me (I would have rebelled if they had) and I found many good authors on my own.

    If your kid wants to read Seventeen (I did), let them. It’s better than nothing.

  9. I think in general, reading is better than not reading. It might not be the best thing possible if you’re only reading crap, but I think it’s better then just being sort of semi-conscious.

    But as I said in the referenced thread, if they’re just reading Twilight over and over again, then they quickly stop getting much benefit from it. I don’t think they’ve shown that people who started reading because of Twilight (or Harry Potter) have started reading anything else.

  10. I propose a simple survey:

    Find 500 children for whom a majority of their reading material is fanfiction. Wait five years. See what percentage of their reading material is still fanfiction.

    If, after five years, the majority of those children have moved beyond fanfiction into things more akin to literature, we’ll have some evidence to support the argument.

    If however, most of those children are still consuming nothing but fanfiction, we’ll know that any reading isn’t necessarily good reading.

  11. Given the horrifying iliteracy rate in the UK, anyone reading anything is frankly an achievement.

    While I don’t think quality is unimportant, you’d be ill if you ate nothing but Pate, fine wines and rich cheese. It’s the same with reading material, if you read nothing but Proust you’d get mental indigestion.

    Just because something is popular doesn’t mean its no good, Dickens was and remains popular, as does Jane Austin (though I don’t like her) and so on. Terry Prattchett is not only popular but also a great writer, I predict they’ll be reading him (if not studying him) long after we’re all dead.

    And reading children’s books, to children, can be rewarding as well. Especially if you give all the characters different voices.

  12. As a high school English teacher I struggle with this question a lot. I want my students to challenge themselves by reading different types of texts but I’m pretty happy if they read at all.

    Phlebas is right, surveys here in Australia have shown that kids who read Harry Potter didn’t necessarily go on to read other novels, they just read Harry Potter again. I do my best to give them direction. Like Harry Potter? Try Diana Wynne Jones. Like Matthew Reilly? (ugh!) Maybe some Tom Clancy wouldn’t be a stretch.

    Daniel: I used to read (and, I’ll admit it, write) a lot of fanfiction and it actually led me to reading novels I might not have otherwise heard about (mostly trashy vampire novels). Sadly, when I got to postgrad level in English Lit I could no longer stomach a lot of the trash I used to love when I was a teen.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that reading should, like other things in life, be a progression. I still love a well made picture book and the sword and sorcery stuff but they’re on my shelf next to Woolf and Marquez (metaphorically, my books are better organised than that).

  13. I think with younger children the answer is an unequivocal yes. As a teenager, however, I used books to escape real life. I would have been better off if I had cut down the reading a bit, and studied and exercised more.

    As an adult I try to juggle more things. I need time for family, community, chores, learning, creating, exercising, and relaxing. Too much time spent reading means something else suffers. Too little and I start to feel stupid.

    Another thing has change with age. I used to feel bad if I didn’t regularly read books that were “good for me.” Now I get enough death, destruction, and deep thoughts in every day life. Now if I read three Pratchetts back to back I feel not a twinge of guilt.

  14. I think so. Reading in and of itself is an intellectual process, whether it’s The God Delusion, Harry Potter and the Totally Weird Thingamajig of Arahuzobekeslaneroviatiokarr, or Penthouse Forum. It all involves parsing information, and creating a model of the information in your mind. It works the brain cells, and that’s always a good thing.

  15. ya beat me to it shanek. I have seen some pretty convincing evidence on the side of use it or lose it regarding mental faculties.

    I would guess that reading of any material would suffice as a decent daily work out for the grey matter.

  16. If the mindless stuff becomes the hook that draws someone in to reading that’s enlightening, then it’s more than worthwhile to have them reading trash. And even low brow material can be fodder for conversation and critical thinking. But, if it never goes anywhere, and it’s just endless sessions of mental masturbation* after mental masturbation, you’re just going to end up with fuzzy vision.

    *I in no way intended that to denigrate masturbation.

  17. Does the act of reading have innate value over and above the subject matter being read? Yes. As long as the reading material is grammatical and spelled right. It helps imprint spelling and grammar in your mind. Trains you to read and comprehend text faster.

    Should we be encouraging reading for the sake of reading? Sure, for those who don’t read much in the first place, and as long as it’s instead of something bad (like listening to rock music or dancing), but not if it’s instead of watching Mythbusters.

  18. To the first one, yes and no. On the one hand most people are impressionable and when something like that is being idealised I think it’s not a good thing. However, there are a lot of people that can think for themselves and pick and choose what is worth idealising and not idealising.

    To the second one, it obviously didn’t make the illiterate bafoons who were posting on MasalaSkeptic’s post any more literate so I don’t see what good it did them.

  19. @Elles: “To the second one, it obviously didn’t make the illiterate bafoons who were posting on MasalaSkeptic’s post any more literate so I don’t see what good it did them.

    Nor did it seem to improve their reading comprehension.

    Maybe they’re just finding more of value in those cheesy novels because they’re reading more than just the words written. They’re projecting their own feelings into the text and misinterpreting it to suit their own preconceptions. They sure seemed to be doing that with the comments we wrote …

  20. Good question. My initial thought was “sure, if they’re not reading at all, there’s no difference between not reading Superman comics and not reading Mark Twain.” Of course, taken to the extreme, you have an Orwellian construct where people read literature (if I may call it that) in a language (if I may call it that) so debased as to have almost no meaning. Wait, I just described the internet.

    Seriously, though, I’ll champion reading for its own sake. It’s a skillset that requires practice to improve and reading comprehension is of inestimable value. Start folks off on the gateway drugs of Twilight or Harry Potter, and soon enough you’ll have some of them mainlining Sagan. Come on kid, the first one’s free

  21. I think that the two concerns answer two different problems. On the reading as a virtue onto itself side, you are concerned if the person can function in society. On the other side, you are concerned if the person can actually learn anything. If school’s function was to teach people how to function, then caring only if they read would be perfect. If the goal is to teach something, the content is a large concern.
    Consider a school library, and consider a Scientology like cult publishing children’s books designed to play to children’s vulnerabilities. It’s easy to see quickly that just teaching children to function is not sufficient if the structure that they are functioning in is corrupt and oppressive.
    I guess a better example is that just teaching reading above all else teaches students to read their credit card contract, while reading good books teaches them to recognize that the rates they are charging are criminal, and so they probably shouldn’t put too much on that card should they avoid it.

  22. This AI addresses somthing that’s been on my mind for several months.

    Up until I moved from Buffalo to Phoenix in 2001 I had been reading a lot. With over 2 million volumes, the central library in downtown Buffalo was a place where I could find things well beyond my imagination. Mostly though, I haunted the physics, astronomy, radio, SF, automotive, and paperback stacks. A good bit of it was not great literature.

    After moving to Phoenix I was focused so much upon learning about my new state, since I love the outdoors, that I pretty much stopped reading. The exceptions were what was necessary for work and what was necessary to understand the desert. Now I’m in West Palm Beach and have the need to fill my time, and I’ve been trying to get back into reading.

    My reading speed and comprehension have definitely dropped over the past seven years. I need more time to absorb and retain what I read. I also find logical analysis (as opposed to “gut instinct”) a bit more difficult. I’m kind of angry at myself that I didn’t keep up my skill.

    In my opinion, unless an individual stays with comic book level material, there is a distinct advantage in reading which goes beyond the subject material. Why? Because you need to think about what you are reading in order for it to make sense. Otherwise it goes in one eye and out the other, so to speak. Basically, it’s a form of “mental push-ups”.

    Encourage reading for the sake of reading? Certainly. Reading is a mental skill, and as such, some benefits will accrue. At the very least, the ability to read would be maintained.

  23. Shiftymruzik: I think your analysis is useful. Reading for the sake of it is good, but reading while learning something is better. So get them reading anything rather than nothing, but try to get them reading the good stuff as well.

  24. When I was maybe twelve or thirteen, my Dad gave me “The Chronicles of Narnia”. I bet I’ve read some of those books two dozen times. I recently reread “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” (a childhood favorite) and could barely stomach it. Still, all things considered, I’m very grateful to have known this series of books. Without them I may never have developed a love of novels and essays at all.

  25. I’d have to say, “Yes and no.”

    I was lucky enough to get into reading early, and chose mostly educational or very imaginative stuff. The first book I can remember reading over and over was a selective encyclopedia of animals (intended for elementary school students); that’s the only reason I still know what a hyrax is. We had library time once a week, and I checked that same damn book out every single time. I also loved Bill Peete books; if you have or know a kid who likes animals, they will go completely apeshit for them, trust me. (I still go apeshit for them, in fact.)

    So, I read informative/interesting stuff (“My Side of the Mountain” is a perpetual favorite) and craziness (still dig the comic books as well) and got a pretty well-rounded introduction to spelling, grammar, and reading comprehension.

    But, then again, I had a friend whose parents had a collection of “unsolved mystery” (can’t remember the title) books that basically comprised every form of woo known to man. I remember borrowing those books and seriously believing everything I read. Bigfoot? Sure! Psychics? Totally! Bermuda Triangle? Spooky!

    So, while my reading comprehension was top-notch, I had very weak critical thinking skills. I just went along with all the crap in those crap books and believed it for years. Thankfully, I finally grew a fucking brain and realized it was all, well, crap.

    So, yes, reading anything is good, if only to teach kids how to spell, use, and understand words properly. And to give them a basic grasp of grammar, which seems to be a serious problem with kids nowadays.

    But, also, no. You can’t tell me that giving an impressionable kid or teen a copy of “The Secret” is a good thing. Unless you tell said kid or teen, “Read this B.S. and tell me everything that’s wrong with it.”

  26. ^ Indeed, however I think reading as much as possible is a good thing. I have terrible reading comprehension and if I read more as a kid instead of playing video games I think I would have been much better off.

  27. To wax Clintonian, I think one must first define what the meaning of “reading” is. Reading is not a single skill, but rather a collection of them, with different aspects in play at different times. Not every book can exercise all of these skills.

    At the youngest of ages, we have to master the ability to map squiggles to sounds, which is a prerequisite for everything else we have to learn later. In reading both fiction and nonfiction, we have other tasks to do. On the fiction side, a practised reader will see how characters are characterized, how worlds are built up, how plot events are foreshadowed and so forth. (A typical “reading comprehension” question: In O. Henry’s “After Twenty Years”, who is the policeman at the beginning of the story? Or: For what purposes did Lois Lowry include Asher’s story of the boy who swam away to join a new Community?) As I recall, my own formal schooling consisted of having a heap of stories thrown at me; we were basically expected to figure out “how stories work” on our own.

    Being an active reader of nonfiction requires becoming proficient in something like Carl Sagan’s baloney detection kit, which is an aspect of reading which my formal schooling did not address at all.

  28. I suspect that once one proceeds beyond the level of functional literacy, reading for readings sake value drops off a bit.

    What happens after that is the reader will either raise the bar, reading more challenging material in terms of writing style, thoughts expressed, or sheer vocabulary, or they will tread water at their current level.

    If they push the envelope, then I posit that there is value to it with a caveat. One value would be, an increase of vocabulary.

    A value in engaging in a challenging/varied mix of writing styles, would have a tendency over time to allow the reader to derive meaning from non-standard word/thought construction. Very useful in problem solving. Also, shifting perspectives stimulated by varied narrative forms engage the reader’s brain in different ways. A supple mind = double plus good right?

    Take for example, how the reader’s mind is engaged by an author such as Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury, via stream of consciousness narrative form. I like this example because SOC is pretty close to replicating actual thought patterns and their variance from person to person.

    I think this may be quite important the more one explores the plasticity of the mind. There is a lot that could be said here, but what I will restrict myself to is the thought that it is a unique way to piggy back on the vocabulary, thought patterns, ideas, and subjective experiences of another mind. In theory this in turn should allow for an acceleration of mental progression over time at a rate not possible if one had to rely on mere experience as a teacher.

    A bit of a rant. I am high on Thera-flu…PEACE

  29. I have not read all the comments, but this is an issue of taste versus practicality. If you’ve spent any time in a classroom, then you would be happy to see a child reading Sports Illustrated, just to be sure they are interested in something. Reading can be a gateway drug, in that, if once you are literate you find new interests, and open up to a bunch of new sources of information, or texts. This is a difficult thing to do with students. So, if a book like Twilight or Harry Potter come about, which are popular, then to see kids get interested in them gives an educator hope, that they might use these as a stepping stone, and find better material in the future. So, back to what I first said, it all depends on if you want to look at it an issue of practicatliy, or as an issue of taste.

  30. Reading anything is always much better than reading nothing. This fact is apparent to most people, especially in the bathroom. Reading is a skill and requires exercise to perfect. That being said, most folks will get a better edge by honing their skill on classics rather than comics.

  31. I am torn with this. I used to think reading anything was good but after having been a librarian for several years now. I am not so sure.
    For teens, I would say allow them to read anything. It gets them thinking and introduces them hopefully to new ideas. I know many people who are against graphic novels but they are reading and teens need to be encouraged to explore.
    Adults , may be a different story. I see women who come in and check out stacks of romance novels a week and return the next week for more. I don’t see them checking out anything different. The same happens with men who just read westerns or people who just read Christian fiction. I think reading is good if it opens up new ideas and worlds but if you just stick with one genre and never explore anything outside then it is the same thing as watching the same TV show over and over again.
    I think reading should introduce you to new ideas and new concepts. We need to have a dialog that helps civilization continue to grow and expand.

  32. I think that reading for reading’s sake is generally worthwhile. There are times when I’m closed in a small room for a few minutes, and my choices are to read nothing, or to read whatever lousy publication is on top of the tank. I’ll invariably do the latter. It’s not that I *want* to know what the celebs are up to, I just need to read.

    My kids are both voracious readers. Voracious! My wife and I read to them a lot when they were little, and fortunately it took root. They read all kinds of fiction, but both are getting into non-fiction as well. My 10 year-old girl loves animals, wants to be a vet, and is learning all kinds of things about horses and other animals (we’re suburban tract-dwellers.) My 12 year-old son likes books on fossils, gems and the like, and just recently read Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything”.

    Sometimes I wonder whether these things sink in, and I was pleasantly surprised by the following experience. I often spend a little while chatting with the kids after reading time, and before sleep time. They call it the science lesson; no matter how the conversation starts, it veers into science — fun science. We were discussing the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans, and the long period between that and modern humans and Neandertals. My boy jumped up and grabbed a fossil book. “Like this,” he says flipping directly to a page on Lucy. He’s been paying attention to his reading!

    I know that we are very fortunate, and I may be singing another tune if they were reading only junk. But I firmly believe that even reading mental pabulum is better than not reading. The dangerous thing is not learning critical thinking skills, and absorbing truly dangerous, deceptive ideas. Raising thinking, reasoning humans requires a multi-pronged approach!

  33. Uh Twilight is just a low budget Pride and Prejudice. I couldn’t finish it, but my 17 year old daughter loves it. Yeah, I fall on the side of let them read what the y like, and have lots of Science, National Geographic, Skeptical Inquirer around the house.

  34. I think two distinct but related issues are being conflated.

    1. Kids, especially, aren’t reading. We’re graduating kids who are barely literate.

    2. When kids do read, it’s usually drivel.

    If a kid would read nothing unless he/she were reading Twilight books… so be it. Reading drivel is better than reading nothing.

    Most especially, if kids (again, especially — though this applies to adults as well) get a chance to read a whole series of books and find that they can actually enjoy reading books, then one can slowly steer them to better material.

    Put succinctly, you have to solve problem #1, then work on problem #2

  35. Either you’re exposing yourself to new ideas (both good and bad) or you’re closing yourself off in an echo chamber.
    When I was a kid I was always reading “dangerous” books that people where claiming would rot my brain. Stuff about serial killers and Mein Kampf. I eventually outgrew it while somehow managing not to transform into a fascist serial killer.
    I also devoured stuff about UFO abductions and occult magic. Robert Anton Wilson is still one of my heroes. And yet today I’m an ardent skeptic.

    I dont have kids but if I did hopefully I’d be less concerned about them reading the wrong stuff than about them missing the right stuff.

    No one ever transformed themselves into a fundementalist by occassionally indulging in mormon abstinence porn. It’s the people who shelter themselves from new ideas that are the problems.

  36. There are enough good books for all grade levels that there’s no excuse for a kid not being exposed early and often to quality, and anyone who reads really good stuff early on will know the difference between that and tripe and will nearly always prefer it.

    Personally, I believe that this trend towards letting kids read any trash they want because “they’re finally reading something!” is part of the problem. It teaches them that all books are equally valuable, which they are not, and that all kinds of reading are equally valuable, which they definitely are not.

  37. My stand on this issue is of course obvious. Sorry I am just seeing this now – the last few months have been insane. My suggestion was never to imply that all books are made equal. But that reading is a basic and essential communication skill. One that is increased by practice and suffers from atrophy. If something captures their attention enough to get them to practice and build this skill, well it is better than the alternative.

    When a child is forced to read as anyone who has ever worked with children an an academic setting can tell you, they skim (if your lucky) and use sparknotes or whatever alternative is currently in fashion. Even as an adult when I have to read things I don’t want to it is hard not to skim. And if this is a child’s only exposure to books, reading will not be a skill practiced often.

    Of course none of this absolves a parent of responsibility. You should know what your kids a reading. You might even have to pick it up and read it yourself – try not to skim

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