Let’s not forget the magic and joy in reading

Books bombarded his shoulders, his arms, his upturned face. A book alighted, almost obediently, like a white pigeon, in his hands, wings fluttering. In the dim, wavering light, a page hung open and it was like a snowy feather, the words delicately painted thereon. In all the rush and fervour, Montag had only an instant to read a line, but it blazed in his mind for the next minute as if stamped there with fiery steel. ~ Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

fiction pile on Shell Beach

fiction pile on Shell Beach

I’ve been thinking a lot about reading recently. Learning to read, teaching to read, analysing what we read. And books. In part this is because I am immersed, always, in story. Partly it’s contextual. Recently in Australia, the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and News Corp have partnered to launch a February ‘Raise a Reader’ campaign to encourage parents to read to their children, in an effort to improve the literacy and vocabulary of students entering school. Additionally, with school going back in Australia this week, there have been click-bait media pieces which paint either parents or teachers as the villains of children’s education. Linda Graham reminds us, though, that we need parent-teacher partnerships, not polarisation.

In this post I attempt to weave together some of my non-linear, multi-layered thoughts on reading and books. It is parents and teachers (and role models and family members and libraries and society) who can help the perceived value of reading and the effective development of literacy. Discussions of literacy, reading and books should be about effective strategies, but also about joy, play and power.

from Dr Seuss' My Many Coloured Days

from Dr Seuss’ My Many Coloured Days

I’ve been surrounded by books my whole life. My family moved a lot, but my childhood homes were linked together by the presence of books. They were sometimes (often?) more plentiful than possessions. I could take unexplored books off any shelf, without having to check the rating or ask permission. As a family, we went to the library, one night a week, when we would each return the previous week’s stack of books and take out a new stack. Science fiction for my mum. Crime fiction for my dad. And whatever books we kids wanted, changing as our tastes changed over time. My grandfather’s study was a wonderland of ancient paper and earthy leather tomes. Books in my childhood were something enjoyable. They were individual escapes but also connected us through the practice of reading, and talking about our reading.

The purpose of Newspeak was … to make all other modes of thought impossible…. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought. ~ 1984, George Orwell

Since I became an English and Literature teacher I’ve spent my work days surrounded by books (now sometimes electronic). I get to read and talk about books for a living. My Year 12 class is currently looking at dystopian texts, some of which explore the power of language to both control and free us. George Orwell’s 1984 explores the idea that minimizing language and vocabulary can diminish and control thought. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 explores a world where books are seen as powerful weapons of knowledge which threaten government control and societal compliance. Yet both novels also show the power of language to free and the power of human thought to prevail. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World explores how suppressing books and controlling stories of the past can control the present. Our class has discussed the announcement of the Oxford word of 2015 as an emoji, and whether the distilling of language into pictorial representations is helpful or hindering to communication and thought. We’ve looked at words which exist only in a particular language and wondered whether you need to have a word in order to experience a thought or concept.

Books were just a commodity that had to be produced, like jam or bootlaces. ~ 1984, George Orwell

Part of my Head of English roles at three schools involved leading reading curricula and pedagogy, sometimes from the early years up until the final year of school. David Sousa’s (2014) How the Brain Learns is a good introduction to the world of the alphabetic principle, phonemes, graphemes, encoding, decoding, and the cognitive neuroscience how of learning to read. Sir Jim Rose’s (2006) Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading recommended that the best approach to teaching beginning readers includes discrete, high-quality, multi-sensory, systematic phonics work. It also promoted the use of sharing books, songs and rhyme as ways to develop children’s positive attitudes to literacy. Synthetic phonics is certainly important for children, but so is instilling enjoyment of reading. Always an advocate for balance, in debate and in teaching, I don’t think that phonics and whole language need to be polarised approaches. Systematic phonics instruction explicitly teaches students how to decode and encode language and to be successful readers, but it doesn’t teach them to be readers who value and enjoy reading.

In my high school English classrooms, and in student work, I can tell those students who have devoured books through their childhoods and those who haven’t. In Teaching the Brain to Read (2008), Judy Willis applies brain research to the teaching of reading. She discusses the importance of pleasure and motivation in learning to read, and the role of dopamine in learning. Students need choice, variety, and enjoyment of reading, not only drills and explicit instruction.

my original copy of the Alice Golden Book

my original copy of the Alice Golden Book: rabbit hole reading

When I became a parent, out came my childhood books, including tattered Golden Book volumes. Our shelves at home filled with early readers, picture books, storybooks and favourite novels. As recommended by the recent Australian ‘Raise a Reader’ campaign, we have read to our children since birth. Now 3 and 5 years old, this year in Kindergarten and Pre-Primary, our children are being exposed to the Jolly Phonics program at their local school. They bring home sets of words, in slowly spiralling levels of difficulty, to sound out and learn. They are read to at school and they take books off the shelves of their classroom. They visit the school library with their teachers and the local library with us.

The minimum we read to our kids at home is two books at bedtime. Often we read more than this in a day. This week my eldest started Pre-Primary and on his first visit to the school library he brought home a book which had 223 big pages. Between my husband and I, we read 80 pages the first night. The next two days the first thing our son did when he woke up in the morning was to run and get this book. We finished it tonight, three days after he took it out, and both boys have chosen to sit and listen to every page. This amount of reading wasn’t our choice as parents, but our son’s, so excited was he to read the stories within. He’s hoping we can read the whole thing again before he has to return it.

So as I find myself developing readers at home, being a reader myself, and exploring reading with my students (not to mention academic reading and nerdy reading for my own learning), I find the multi-layeredness of reading too unwieldy to tie down into a simple formula. There are systematic and sensible ways to conceptualise reading; these are, of course, important. And then there are the intangibles: the magic, inhaling the booky perfume (released by the glorious chemical breakdown of lignin and cellulose), the sound and feel of turning pages, and the internal world which comes alive when a book has grabbed you and pulled you deep into its world.

my eldest (then 4yo), reading to our youngest (then 2yo)

my eldest (then 4yo), ‘reading’ to our youngest (then 2yo)

On writing: Is it dense to be complex?

writing is power (my image, of course!)

writing is power (my image, of course!)

Writing can be bold and dangerous and disruptive. It can be quiet and still and sneaky. It can be melodious and rhythmic and beautiful. It can be subversive and challenging and difficult to read. As a reader and a teacher of English and Literature, I am a believer in the power of language, of words, of literature, of story and of writing. To educate and to soothe. To challenge and to change. It’s why writing is so important for everyone. Writing – and being able to enact authorial intent, to release thought and emotion through words on a page or screen or device – is power.

I teach my students of English to write for audience and purpose. For whom are they writing? What is their purpose? To persuade, to shock, to inform, to inspire, to call to action, to explain, to intrigue? As authors, once they have identified for whom and why they are writing, they can make choices of form, structure and language. I teach them the ‘rules’ of various genres and forms so that they know how to use them, and how to deliberately break them. The same goes for any writer: know your game, how to play and conform, and how to challenge or subvert.

I find blogging an interesting form in the sense that the audience is sometimes unclear. In some ways I write it for myself – as a web log of reflections. Yet I write around particular topics, and I know that I have a readership of individuals and groups who are (it seems!) interested in what I have to say. In some ways I write to share my story so that others might glean something from it, in part because I get so much from others blogging their journeys or writing ‘aloud’ their thoughts and theories as they form. I like even more the collaborative nature of blogging; when it opens up conversation, in comments, on social media or in new blog posts. As Pat Thomson writes, writing can be identity work; it can be a way into being and into connection. And as author and self-publisher, a blogger is free to write how and about what they choose. It’s a kind of free writing.

Academic writing is a different beast. Some academic writers work to make their writing accessible to a broader audience than the academe or a narrow field of scholars. Sometimes I use my thesaurus in reverse (‘What’s a simpler way of saying this?’). But often, as Greg Thompson and Linda Graham have suggested recently, academese can be complex, esoteric and hard to decode precisely because of the densities and intricacies of the ideas being tussled with. Readers and writers of academic prose need to work hard, grappling with words and concepts. Sometimes it seems that every third academic writer invents a new word just to sound more obtuse and scholarly than the next. Yet these discourse-specific terms can be the result of the sweat and tears of theorisation; ‘How do I best communicate this theory?’ Like literature, often celebrated for its multi-levelled complexity, academic texts often need to be read and re-read in order to be understood, and on different levels. Academic allegory. A journey into knowing.

One’s own writing, too, can involve struggle. Using big words isn’t necessarily gratuitous chest-beating in order to show off or project cleverness; it can be the result of ideas and words wrestled with, toiled over, written and re-written. Boundaries pushed at persistently. Knowledge formed or reimagined. I am a neophyte in the world of academia, but my PhD has taught me that writing in academia can mean taking one step forward to take ten steps back. Often I write my way into understanding, like Naomi Barnes who sees writing as inquiry and blogging as process.

my crude Venn diagram of the writing-reading process

my crude Venn diagram of the writing-reading process

Meaning is made at the junction between text (as performed by the writer) and reader. The writer brings themselves to the text, with all their own context, authorial processes, beliefs, assumptions, knowledge, gaps in knowledge and writerly decisions. The reader, too brings their self, context, beliefs, values, and skills of interpretation to the written piece. It’s in that zinging middle space – like in the tension between the fingers of Adam and God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling – that meaning is made. It’s why no reading of a text is ever the same, and why there can never be a ‘right’ interpretation, only perhaps a dominant one.

In today’s world there are a range of places and forms in which authors can communicate their work, theorise, research, think and write. Writers make decisions based on what they want to communicate and who they are reaching out to (or away from). They can choose big words, small words, combative words, inclusive words. They can simplify or complicate. They might write to situate themselves in a particular discourse, within a particular conversation, or with a particular group.

Readers, too, make choices. To read, engage, re-read, give up, struggle through. Or to respond and engage by writing, writing, writing.

Words on New York: Manhattan through authors’ eyes

from Candace Bushnell's 'One Fifth Avenue'

from Candace Bushnell’s ‘One Fifth Avenue’

In a previous post I shared my New York fiction reading pile, as I prepare for a professional trip to NYC, which will be my third visit to the city but my first for work. As I make my way through the pages of my NewYorkspiration, here are a few quotes from some of those books.

“Possibly there were two tigers, the famous and chaotic one that lit the tabloid frenzy, and this more dignified one, who showed itself to us alone. It was after all moving along Eighty-fourth Street, toward the block where Brandy’s Piano Bar and Perkus’s old apartment lay condemned. Perhaps this was the tiger that put things back together instead of destroying them … it regarded us or didn’t, shone its light on us and then shut it off again, and was gone, leaving only claw prints and, with its tail, an inadvertent serpentine signature lashed into a parked Mayflower van’s snowy windshield.” Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City

“The bridge had been the first disappointment. Looking at it from the roof of her house, she had thought that crossing it would make her feel like a gossamer-winged fairy flying through the air. But the actual ride over the bridge was no different than the ride above the Brooklyn streets. … New York was disappointing.” Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn 

“I wonder how she’ll find New York,” Enid said. “Having been away so long.” / “Exactly the same, Auntie,” Philip said. “You know New York never changes. The characters are different but the play remains the same.” Candace Bushnell, One Fifth Avenue

Two weeks til takeoff. Carpe NYC!

art journal page: I heart New York

art journal page: I heart New York


A life lived learning: a tribute to my grandfather

I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library. ~ Jorge Luis Borges

New York Public Library by @debsnet

New York Public Library ~ ‘A good Booke is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life.’

In education, we talk a lot about lifelong learning, and about how to inspire in our students (or perhaps preserve in our children) curiosity, passion and the desire to know, to discover, to push at boundaries. To be continuous creators, thinkers, questioners and enactors of their thinking and beliefs.

As an English and Literature teacher, and lifelong reader, who grew up surrounded by books, the physical book is for me a symbol of self-directed, voluntary learning. As a girl I was able to peruse bookshelves throughout my childhood home and pull books from the shelves, at will, to read and re-read. These books were not vetted for age-appropriateness but were a range of children’s books, novels, classics and encyclopaedias to which I had unfettered access.

Other vivid memories are of being in the study of my grandfather, who was a collector and binder of rare and beautiful books. His study was wall-to-wall floor-to-ceiling wooden bookcases, saturated with the overwhelming smell of old paper, worn leather and decaying adhesives. It was a paradise for the book lover!

Overnight my grandfather quietly passed away in his bed, at ninety years of age, his spectacles on and a book in his hand. He was a Doctor of Philosophy, a scientist, a professor, a poet and a thinker, who was reading and writing narratives, scientific writing and verse until his last breath. He was the epitome of a lifelong learner, a deliberate scientific questioner of knowledge and someone always willing to engage in hefty intellectual debate. Only yesterday he and I were discussing strategies for academic, thesis and poetry writing.

I discovered today that my grandfather has left me two of his prized books: an early copy of Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World and an antique Chinese text which is a concertina series of Chinese customs, paired with hand painted calligraphy scenes, and bound between curved carved wooden covers. Both are books I remember connecting with the first time he gingerly passed them into my hands in his study. I remember feeling their weight (the Raleigh is heavy!), fingering the irregular textures, and smelling that old book smell (read more about the science of that here in Jessica Leber’s Fast Company post) as I sank into the cocoon of his old chair.

Books by @debsnet  IMG_1399

Raleigh Collage by @debsnet

As well as being objects that I will cherish, these books are symbolic for me of a life lived learning, something I aspire to, and to which I hope my students and my children will aspire.

New York anticipatory reading

Books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time. ~ E. P. Whipple

NYC Books by @debsnet

Here is my little pile of NYC reading.

I have collected actual books! I have a Kindle which is much more practical for travelling, but I still like the sensory experience of reading: the look of a book cover, the feel of paper, the smell of the page and the sound of it turning.

In amongst professional reading, book club reading and PhD reading, I will read some of these before I go and some while I am away. The ones that come away with me will be ‘paid forward’ to people I meet along the way, so that they can find new homes … and so that I don’t need to pack them for the journey home.

My picks are quintessential novels of New-York-ness: Kerouac’s On the Road (ok, so only minorly relevant to NYC, but a key text in American travel and psyche), Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Lethem’s Chronic City, Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Cunningham’s The Snow Queen and Bushnell’s One Fifth Avenue.

I am starting with The Snow Queen, a book named after the 1844 Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale which also inspired the animated film Frozen.

It’s been coming down since midnight. Snow eddies and tumbles as the point of equinox passes, and the sky starts all but imperceptibly turning from its nocturnal blackish brown to the lucid velvety gray of first morning, New York’s only innocent sky. ~ The Snow Queen

What are your best NYC reads?