I wonder if reading books is an inconvenience these days when the handy smartphone is so lightweight it seems the hefty book may cause carpal tunnel in the wrist. Aside from the negative physiological response, books have become remote from people’s lives with the intoxicating lure of webtoons, Youtube videos, and newsfeeds. As someone who teaches literacy and literature, I ponder if my methods and values have been left behind as Instagram and Tiktok take over time that used to be for TV watching and book reading. It was much easier when TV was the main rival.
But here is an excerpt from the diary of an eager graduate student from many years ago, since Instagram was just a year old:
“I can't believe May has come. Its lovely flowers and brisk, less sharp wind. I assessed my child Dillon today and was amazed by how smart he was. His father would not leave the room during the tests, so intense was he. But the boy sang as he did his assessments, sometimes blurting out answers as we went along. I tested his phonological skills, pipa, Ctopp Rapid naming, Qri for reading, PPVT for vocabulary. Vocabulary words he went through the roof to age 11. I asked his father what the secret was and he said, “We read since pregnancy. We read three books every day.” There really is no secret. Just read every day.”
I scribbled this piece years ago when I had to assess a child for literacy fluency. He must have been five? The setting was on the university campus of the U.S., and the family was non-white, surely immigrants. Their only child’s literacy skills meant everything to them and I still remember how intense the father was, making me nervous as I applied the tests. I was mostly in awe of books that had rendered the five year old so confident in taking five different types of assessments. Who sings during tests?
As I strive myself to make reading relevant, to myself and students, I find myself reading the introduction pages of The Social Imperative: Race, Close Reading, and Contemporary Literary Criticism by Paula M.L. Moya, who also questions the relevance of literature and reading today. Fortunately, she gives a beautiful and relatable answer, the summary of which is as follows: writers are cultural and social beings. They write of a world of similar and diverging dreams, hopes, illusions and bodies of knowledge. To read is to encounter the self and the other, the writer, who might be from a world apart from yours. The act of reading is an excavation of the social world that the reader and writer each live in.
In the 21st century, we must literally excavate books from our shelves and libraries where they wait patiently like old and new friends. On my shelf I have books by the young African American writer, Jesmyn Ward, through whose writing I see protests in the U.S. as not an eruption of rage over a singular incident but rather demonstrations against historical and continuous oppression. There is Tony Morrison’s Tar Baby, whose main black female character is recognizable as a conflicted individual who refuses normative roles of her gender. Her individual and social contradictions are so authentic. I also have Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, a writer recommended to me by a prolific reader friend of mine during my days as an anxious undergraduate. The book still makes me laugh, taking me away briefly from my due dates and obligations. In fact, I was just reading it before finishing this piece.
On my reading table, a book called The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, a Zambian writer, awaits. It is a 500-page heavyweight but contains people with their complex, different, yet relatable world. I can surely risk a sore wrist for the privilege to gain access.