Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Becoming readers

In the rush of new reading technologies, don't forget that the text should be the main thing

Issue: "2011 Books of the Year," July 2, 2011

I remember the moment when I became a reader. I always liked to read, but that's not the same thing. What made a reader of me was a novel I received through a children's book club.

It was the story of a journey from Poland to Switzerland by four children in search of their parents immediately following World War II-so far removed from my experience it was a little hard to get into, but by 30 pages in, the story had hooked me. In chapter 12, it changed me.

The journey has just begun: Two sisters and an orphan boy who's attached himself arrive at a refugee camp in search of their brother Edek, captured two years earlier and sent to Germany. But it appears he's run away. The three join a soup line, where in the process of getting served someone trips and spills his food. The hungry children dive for it. Ruth, the oldest sister, plunges into the melee to shield some of the little ones. In the confusion she catches hold of a hand: "For some reason or other she clung on to the hand, and when everyone about her had got up and her hair was free she had not let go. Then she looked to see whose hand it was, and it was Edek's" (Ian Serraillier, The Silver Sword).

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It's hard to communicate the effect without the emotional investment of earlier chapters. But the best way I can describe it is that the story itself had reached out and grabbed my hand.

How mysterious is that? Words arranged in sentences, built into a narrative, made me bigger. It's a bit like creation itself: light spoken into being, coalescing into atoms, combining into molecules, becoming elements. Writing imitates creation by "speaking" ideas into being.

But reading can be creative as well. When readers read at this level, they interact with the book in a conversation that alters perception, expands sympathy, provokes anger, or refines argument.

Not everybody is a reader, in this sense. C.S. Lewis, in An Experiment in Criticism, made the claim that even in a highly literate society, readers (those who get something from books that they get nowhere else) are the minority. Most people read for two reasons: entertainment and information. Both needs are legitimate, but can be met in other ways, especially today. The third reason I would call enlightenment-letting the ideas created by written language challenge or change us.

Literature courses were originally intended to develop this kind of reader, and if "literature" seems increasingly irrelevant today, it's partly because too many college professors have used it as a tool. They've been busy, as historian Victor Davis Hanson puts it, "defining the study of literature and history as a melodrama of race, class, and gender oppression." Students learn to tell the text what it says, rather than letting the text speak to them. That reduces its relevance and flattens its meaning.

But technology can do its own kind of flattening. The introduction of the Kindle raised concerns about "the future of the book" which turned out to be ill-founded. Reading on a Kindle or Nook is still reading, whether for entertainment, information, or enlightenment. E-books are still books; they can even be highlighted or annotated. But a book on an iPad is both more and less-it's an app, and apps are "enhanced." The text is not the main thing, but shares prominence with animations, photos, and video and audio files.

This is fine for shorter forms (check out the new WORLD app!) but probably not the best way to understand literature. By poking, swiping, and touching, the reader is not just reading, but also manipulating. He may be telling the text what he thinks, rather than letting it speak to him. This can even be true, or especially true, of Bible apps. They're wonderful tools, but be careful: If you're too busy poking and swiping, the text may not be able to reach out and take your hand.

Email Janie B. Cheaney

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Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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