Wednesday, September 4, 2013

To read or not to read: the pause

To pause in front of a powerful sentence is a luxury that does not seem to be possible in the age of speed, efficiency and standardized tests. A pause enables the reader to experience and reflect upon the choices made by the author, the order of the words, the importance of the idea, the histories and reasons behind each aspect of what is written, how is written, where was written: the past places, the contemporary one, its related esthetics, the joy of the rhythm, the silences required by the text; when to stop and reflect. But this joy and reflection must be learned, and for many is not possible at all.

Reading has been turned by schools into passing exams, looking for details and finding digested, programmed ideas. In the highly programmed and behaviorist controlled classroom, the reader cannot answer the larger questions and possibilities posed and presented by an all encompassing reading experience. Within the context of contemporary reductive curricula, what is possible with the printed page – which also includes, nowadays, the screen, visual arts, even graffiti - is limited by the bureaucratization and industrialization of knowledge (Carini, 1987).

The personal as well as collective reading experience goes beyond simply meeting immediate objectives or mastering taxonomic skills and ideas. Those who argue in favor of basic skills or specific principles and standards fail to realize that we haven't stopped teaching basic skills or delineate standards. What schools have stopped teaching is the pleasure of reading.

In a rather schematic history of USA education, it can be argued that the early stages of the reduction of the reading experience into delineated skills and pre-digested ideas began during the early part of the twentieth century. It was the start of the dependency on standardized testing, behaviorist theories and its related programmed education and texts.

Luckily, this rigid approach to the reading experience is being counterattacked and transformed from the outside of the schooling institution. It’s being challenged by the new reading mechanism, medium: the computer and its virtual space.

The reductive approach created by the schools during the early nineteen hundreds is, perhaps, one more phase in the history of reading and the last one before the computer began to transform once more the reading experience. It has been suggested (Aries, 1960; Manguel, 1997; Marrou, 1956; Oppenheimer, 1989) that the western world’s modern era of what and how to read began with the invention of the printing press; and that parallel to this technological innovation, two events (the idividualization of the reading experience and the birth of new literary genres) shaped the history and function of  the text. 

Up to the point of the invention of the press, reading was used to aid the memory of the student in the event of forgetfulness. As the printing press came about there were more possibilities to read; and thus the multiplication of texts, translations, and the birth of new genres- the novel, the sonnet - moved the reading experience from its collective and documentation functions to the sphere of the individual, and made it into a reflective tool. Reading was not longer a collective event, solely used as a tool to refresh memory and to transmit the narratives of “nations” or religions in order to shape a particular character or collective purpose. At the time, reading became a reflective, individual experience, even when it remained collectively shared as it was in schools before programmed instruction began to control what was expected of the reader-student during the early part of the twentieth century.

The programming of instruction, instead of a more open and profound approach to education, brought about, for many, the absence of the possibility of exploring multiples layers of what it means to read, what can be found in a text. In spite of the border line fascism approach of the last stages of the modernist classroom, those whose love of reading comes naturally did not stop their need to reflect, to explore the multiple possibilities offered by a text. Whom among us does not remember that teacher who encouraged the students to go beyond the rigidity of the guides, or the parent who read with joy, who stopped and simply smiled, or, like my father often did: threw the paper away with anger at what some author had said; or the brother who transformed himself into the characters in the fairy tale, or orchestrated the sounds of a poem that became a war, a love story; or those whose voices gave us the plot, the ornaments that made the story, the rhythms, the silences.

For many, the silence, the pause is not part of the reading experience but a prerequisite. "Be quiet, we are going to read.” But not for all, since for others the pauses are an integral part of the process as we use them in order to stop, to think, to remember, to enjoy, to question, to wonder without a clear answer. During a recent discussion with a group of teachers most of them remembered the titles of the books read on any given day, but only few remembered the authors of those books or any specifics of the particular books. It was not a surprise since most of the books were objectives oriented textbooks or teacher guides. The classrooms did not provide the opportunities or the texts that would have encouraged the love, the pleasure that can be obtained from the reading experience. For those who come from homes where the collective experience of reading, consciously or unconsciously, takes place the school is a parallel reading experience or serves to validate what they already know. For others, this experience never happens, neither at home, or at the skill oriented classroom.

But we might be experiencing a new phase in the history of reading, a sort of post modernist approach, shaped by the computer era. Carmen Rabell, in an internet journal message board, wonders if speed in cyber space fosters an ephemeral relationship between readers and virtual texts. But isn’t the reader and the text the same? Perhaps the problem is not created by the relationship between the reader and the text, but by the characteristics of the medium transmitting the text. The post-printing page book was no longer handmade one, nor it was the papyrus one, but still in cyberspace there is a text, an author and a reader. Maybe what Rabell misses is the comfort and personal feelings provided by the very unique individual book; feeling it against her chest. And, perhaps, cyberspace has eliminated the uniqueness of each book but has created a new approach to reading, and has forced schools and readers to once more accept the need to pause, reflect and search for answers in other virtual texts; as opposed to the behaviorists controlled, programmed textbooks’ answers.

Perhaps, once more in order to experience the text, its rhythms, the reader will be required read and pause.


Aries, Phillipe. Centuries of Childhood. Vintage Books, 1962

Carini, Patricia.

Manguel, Manuel. A History of Reading. New York: Penguin Books, 1997

Marrou, Henri I. A History of Education in Antiquity. University of Wisconsin Press, 1956

Oppenheimer, Paul. The Birth of the Modern Mind. Oxford University Press, 1989

Rabell, Carmen (comentarios en el foro) en Barradas, Efraín. Ícaro cae y cae.

No comments: