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Your Negative Attitude Won’t Save Literacy, You Know

Most of the immediate attention to the New Yorker‘s fiction issue has been centered around the magazine’s extensive coverage of the controversy over Raymond Carver‘s first drafts, and whether they’re more “real Carver” than the versions Gordon Lish published, but keep an eye out towards the back of the magazine for Caleb Crain‘s thoughts on the reading crisis, which is among other things makes a strong case for Maryanne Wolf‘s Proust and the Squid as a “must-read-next.” The part I want to focus on, though, is Crain’s direct address of the dwindling enthusiasm for reading reported in the NEA’s recently published survey towards the end of the article:

“No effort of will is likely to make reading popular again. Children may be browbeaten, but adults resist interference with their pleasures.”

I said it before, after NEA head Dana Gioia‘s Eyeore-like pronouncement that “I worry that [the Kindle e-book reader] will not make a significant positive impact, however well it does business-wise,” and I’ll say it again: We need a little more can-do spirit than that. Of course children could be browbeaten into reading, but does anybody actually think that would instill a love of it into them? Heck, they might not even need it; even the NEA survey concedes that pre-teens still love to read. So why do they stop once they hit adolescence, and why are their literacy skills dropping? It may be the case, as some of the survey’s interpreters have argued, that the less teenagers read, the more their language skills decrease, but what if we spun it the other way around? What if, as our educational systems are doing a steadily worse job of improving our teens’ language skills, they read less because it stops being as much fun?

If that were the case, would “browbeating” adolescents into reading be anything other than a recipe for failure? Maybe—just as insisting that newspaper book reviews are “important” isn’t going to make the dull ones any more interesting—the solution isn’t so much about convincing people that reading is fabulous as it is about figuring out how they ever forgot it in the first place.

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