An online friend asked me a question when we met in person 3 weeks ago at L’HaRMaS, a Charlotte Mason retreat in Canada on the shores of Lake Erie. She asked: “Why is it so important that your son read books?” She did not ask the easily answered: “Why is it important to be literate” – research has already given us the answer to that question. She asked why I wished my son to not only search the internet and read there for information to fulfill his school assignments, but to turn to books for pleasure and deep knowledge of a subject. This was no mere rhetorical question from a like-minded bibliophile. This was meant for me to think deeply on my motivations. Why indeed?
My first answer is that he used to. As a child he took great pleasure in devouring long novels and reading the most difficult material he could find (Silmarillion, anyone?). And then something happened last year that somehow interrupted that habit, something having to do with all that brain pruning going on, I suspect. I realize that men are less likely to read for pleasure – they are more likely to read for information if they have an interest in reading at all. But men do pick up a book when consumed with an interest in its topic (my younger brother, the mid-life Ph.D., being a prime example of this), so I know my son may as well.
Which leads me to answer number two: Charlotte Mason expected children to read for information…
“The most common and the monstrous defect in the education of the day is that children fail to acquire the habit of reading. Knowledge is conveyed to them by lessons and talk, but the studious habit of using books as a means of interest and delight is not acquired.” (Vol. 1, p. 227)
…because books give us the ability to educate ourselves.
“A child has not begun his education until he has acquired the habit of reading to himself, with interest and pleasure, books fully on a level with his intelligence…Once the habit of reading his lesson-books with delight is set up in a child, his education is-not complete, but-ensured.” (Vol. 1, p. 229)
Further, she expected children to have access to the whole book, not a collection of excerpts and articles, because:
A child cannot in mind or body live upon tabloids however scientifically prepared; out of a whole big book he may not get more than half a dozen of those ideas upon which his spirit thrives; and they come in unexpected places and unrecognised forms, so that no grown person is capable of making such extracts from Scott or Dickens or Milton, as will certainly give him nourishment. (Vol. 6, p. 109-110)
But is the Internet, which contains so much material for reading, something Mason would disapprove of? Isn’t all reading alike? Not at all, it turns out. Some researchers, according to this article, are concerned that the reading patterns we develop online interfere with our ability to read a long, complex work. Try it. Spend a few days reading Facebook, blogs and whatnot and then try to go back to reading your Dostoyevsky novel. It’s not easy, is it?
“Before the Internet, the brain read mostly in linear ways — one page led to the next page, and so on…. Reading in print even gave us a remarkable ability to remember where key information was in a book simply by the layout, researchers said. We’d know a protagonist died on the page with the two long paragraphs after the page with all that dialogue.”
I can tell you that this is true. When P.A. asked for information for one homework assignment or another while still in the public school, I could pull it out of a book on my shelf faster than he could find it by Google. We make mental maps when we read out of physical books. There is a danger that we can lose this ability to make mental maps, lose the ability to read in a linear fashion as our minds adapt to the non-linear reading we do on the Internet.
Is book reading inherently better; do we lose something by putting away our dusty tomes and getting our ideas in short bites? While Charlotte might think so, research hasn’t yet answered this question. By dismissing the benefit of this new reading style, we could make the mistake of Socrates, who wrote (ironically), about the invention of the written word in 370 BCE:
“For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.” (Phaedrus 274c-275b)
Socrates was concerned that words on paper offered no dialog, and with the loss of the give and take between teacher and student there was a commensurate loss of understanding. He was also concerned with the loss of our ability to use our memories – oral historians memorized an astounding amount of material. What we may have lost in one sense, however, we have gained in many others, with knowledge more freely available, and we have since learned that thinking and reading are very closely tied together. In Mason’s words:
“People are naturally divided into those who read and think and those who do not read or think; and the business of schools is to see that all their scholars shall belong to the former class; it is worth while to remember that thinking is inseparable from reading which is concerned with the content of a passage and not merely with the printed matter.” (Vol. 6, p. 31)
In How to Read a Book, author Mortimer Adler specifies three goals for reading: entertainment, information and understanding. Reading for entertainment and information requires very little effort. Reading for understanding, however, requires much more of us. We can get information from “newspapers, magazines, or anything else that, according to our skill and talents, is at once thoroughly intelligible to us,” says Adler (emphasis mine). I would include most Internet resources in this category. He then continues on to say, “Such things may increase our store of information, but they cannot improve our understanding, for our understanding was equal to them before we started.” Reading for understanding requires effort on the part of the reader; it is no passive exercise but rather requires thought. I contend that reading for understanding requires depth, which, lacking a teacher, can only be found in a book.
I hope that we could all be readers and thinkers.