Bookish thoughts: Reading as a skill vs reading as a form of social positioning

All too often I hear or read people complaining that “kids today” don’t read enough. I admit that I am wont to suspect that these individuals themselves are not great readers. Why? Because they speak of “reading” in such a way that I doubt they consider reading as a skill.

Reading, and the books we read, seems often to be as much about social positioning as it is about learning or gaining anything from the book read. Perhaps the most obvious example of a book whose main purpose is to be seen rather than to be read is the coffee-table book. 

When I, as a child, first heard of coffee-table books I was confused and perplexed at the very idea. In my world books existed to be read. Because my parents were frugal most of the books we read were borrowed from the local library. I visited the library on Saturday and came home with an armful of books.  I took my books to my room and was very careful never to leave a book lying on the coffee table since odds were it would be grabbed by the first member of my family who wandered through the room and thus end up in their room on their pile of books. We went to the library almost every Saturday and every visit I went into the building with my arms full of books I had read and I left the building with my arms full of books I was going to read.

My experience growing up was that books were things you read not things you wanted other people to think that you had read so the idea that one would buy a book not to read but to adorn one’s coffee table made no sense to me.  When first I visited homes where such books were found I inadvertently embarrassed people by asking about the book since I presumed that if the book was on the table they were reading it and if they were reading it they would enjoy talking about it. This was not, I soon discovered, something that those who display coffee-table books like to do–or at least they don’t like doing it if the discussion ventures far beyond what they themselves could have gathered from reading the blurbs on the back of the book and the New York Times book review.

What does this have to do with the subject line of this post? I think that many people who talk about reading and praise reading and want their children to do more are themselves very poor readers else they would not describe and discuss books as they do.

Reading is a skill. Not just learning to read as children do but READING seriously and thoughtfully as an adult. It needs to be taught well and it needs to be practiced. Left unused the skill will rust away and yet we may not realize that we have become unskilled at READING because we are still able to read. We can read the labels on the tins at the grocery store. We can read the road signs as we drive along. But we are no longer READING we are reading and books have ceased to become things we READ they are objects that we use to position ourselves socially.

If owning a book becomes an evidence of social position then the books themselves both gain and lose power. They gain because they are invested with talismanic powers. Parents will at the same time complain that their children are not reading and that their children are being exposed to the wrong type of books. They complain about their children learning the wrong facts–not because the facts are “wrong” but because knowledge of those facts might lead to what the parents consider the wrong conclusions. If those parents were truly in favour of teaching READING skills then they would not be in fear of books or facts since their children would have the skills necessary to check the facts and weigh the arguments put forward in the book.

Books also lose power when what is actually written gets lost as people worry about what owning that book says about their own social position and what having read the book says about them as thinkers and what having liked about the book says about them as people. The book becomes part of one’s own social presentation and thus criticisms of the book are perceived as criticisms of oneself.

If reading the book allows me to maintain my chosen social presentation but READING the book undermines the book’s value as a talisman of that social place then READING becomes the enemy of book.


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