Today I bought a secondhand copy of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea at a charity shop in St. Andrews. The store had two copies: one slightly cheaper volume from the sixties, and one newer reprint, schnazzed up with colour illustrations. But there was something that caught my eye – there was a noticeable difference in the story itself in the newer reprint, changing the way the text looked by making it less dense while also removing quotations and bracketed explanations. Ultimately I decided to buy the older version, small enough to fit in my purse and £1 cheaper counts for a lot, without really thinking about the implications of the difference between the two.
Now I’m thinking it through a lot more.
I was watching Newsnight Scotland last night, and they talked about the report that Scottish education isn’t improving despite various reforms over the past decade. One of the specifics they discussed was reading and how students don’t read for enjoyment and it’s affecting performance in that subject because they just don’t want to.
This makes me at once both sad and angry.
I’m sure there are kids who still like to read, but they’re a rare minority; even when I grew up I remember my classmates boasting about how little they read as if it were something to be proud of. Nerds like me who read for pleasure were teased somewhat ridiculously. “OMG why do you bring a different novel to school everyday? You’re so weeiird!” Um, yeah. Good one.
Newsnight Scotland continued to discuss the problem that the largest percentage of reading done in schools is from textbooks. This means that to these children reading mostly consists of blocks of dry text, perhaps divided up by graphs or diagrams. Of course they don’t learn to enjoy it with that as their idea of reading. And not only are they not learning to enjoy it, they’re not even learning how to handle reading dense paragraphs and complex sentences of the sort you’d find in a challenging classic novel. And then if they’re assigned one in an English class they’ll be approaching it with no preparation for how to absorb that kind of literary material, and certainly no reason to think that it could be fun to do so.
I’m now seeing more clearly why this newer copy of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea chose to change the layout of the page and the very wording of the story. And I can’t condone it. If we decide that all classic literature has to be turned into simpler, colourful versions of the original text in order for children to even begin to pick up that book, well we’ve just put the final nail in the coffin in that issue. If it has to be made easier, then we’re failing to truly educate those children. How will they ever learn that persevering with something dense and complex will lead to a better understanding, and even more ultimate enjoyment, of the story?
Simply, they won’t.
I think the way to initiate a new perspective on reading in primary and secondary schools is to teach novels! Sure, let’s integrate Harry Potter into the curriculum! Why the hell not? If it gets kids to interact with the written word, to begin to think critically about it, it can only be a good thing.