Thursday, October 31, 2019

Solnit, Books, Rand, and Young Readers

If you are not a regular follower of Brain Pickings, you should be. Thoughtful and erudite and really, really human, the site has for over a decade presented Maria Popova's essays spun off the works of others. I've met many authors I was glad to know on her site.

This post focuses on author Rebecca Solnit and A Velocity of Being, a collection of 121 illustrated letters written to young readers. Periodically something wakes up my teacher brain, and like an amputees phantom limb it leaps up to say, "Ooo! You should get that for the classroom" before I remember that I know longer have a classroom into which I can out such things (I do, however, have children and grandchildren.) It's about why we read and how books transform us, and Popova quotes from Solnit's letter about how books helped through a difficult childhood.

The books of my childhood were bricks, not for throwing but for building. I piled the books around me for protection and withdrew inside their battlements, building a tower in which I escaped my unhappy circumstances. There I lived for many years, in love with books, taking refuge in books, learning from books a strange data-rich out-of-date version of what it means to be human. Books gave me refuge. Or I built refuge out of them, out of these books that were both bricks and magical spells, protective spells I spun around myself. They can be doorways and ships and fortresses for anyone who loves them.

"A strange data-rich out-of-date version of what it means to be human" might be my new favorite explanation of what literature can offer.

Coincidentally, the other thing I stumbled across the morning was an old National Review reprint of Whittaker Chambers' blistering review of Atlas Shrugged. It's a review that can be enjoyed simply as a writing exercise in excoriation. It's hard to pick from a review that opens by calling the book "remarkably silly," but let's try this:

So much radiant energy might seem to serve a eugenic purpose. For, in this story as in Mark Twain’s, “all the knights marry the princess”–though without benefit of clergy. Yet from the impromptu and surprisingly gymnastic matings of the heroine and three of the heroes, no children–it suddenly strikes you–ever result. The possibility is never entertained. And, indeed, the strenuously sterile world of Atlas Shrugged is scarcely a place for children. You speculate that, in life, children probably irk the author and may make her uneasy. How could it be otherwise when she admiringly names a banker character (by what seems to me a humorless master-stroke): Midas Mulligan? You may fool some adults; you can’t fool little boys and girls with such stuff–not for long. They may not know just what is out of line, but they stir uneasily.

Chambers acknowledges that Rand dislikes much of what he dislikes, yet he shows no mercy for the book. His basic criticism is that Rand populates the book with simplified, unreal flat characters, "without any of those intermediate shades which, in life, complicate reality and perplex the eye that seeks to probe it truly."  In short, there is little to see in Rand's work about what it means to be human.

It is easy in the ed biz to get caught up in things like the reading wars and test results and arguments about whether or not Pat can read and if not why not. And in our very utilitarian reformster-created status quo, some lapse far too quickly to the discussion of reading as a set of Very Useful Skills that will make children employable meat widgets for employers on some future day, and therefor we shall have drill and practice and exercises to build up reading muscles for that far off day.

"But let's not kill the lifelong love of reading," is a common reply, and one that I'm not entirely comfortable with. It's fuzzy and reductive. I can love peanut butter and jelly, but that doesn't really open any windows on the world; I don't love science, but understanding it at least a little has enriched my world. The act of reading is wonderful in a sense, like looking through a pane of glass in an otherwise dull and impenetrable wall. It's magical, yes-- but what's really uplifting and life-changing is what we can see on the other side.

The reading technocrats and pure phonics police are focused on the future, and even the lifelong love of reading camp is looking forward. Both run the risk of forgetting that reading is useful for children right now, this year, this minute, as a way of finding answers to fundamental questions-- how does the world work, and what does it mean to be fully human, and how can I be in the world? Reading gives children access to answers beyond their own immediate experience which is always limited and all-too-often, as in Solnit's case, severely limited by the control of adults who have trouble working out answers of their own. In the crush to provide reading instruction that will benefit children someday, we shouldn't overlook the ways in which reading will benefit them right now. Both reading science and lifelong love camps stand at the window and say some version of, "Let's look at this window. Let's examine it and study it and polish it and enter into a deeper relationship with it," while anxious children hop up and down on their toes and beg to look through it.

Solnit likes the wall metaphor. I'm fond of windows. You can pick your own favorite. I just want to argue that we not get carried away by either the desire to reduce reading instruction to hard science or fuzzy emotions, that we not forget that there's an actual reason for children to read, and that the reason exists today, right now. Don't get caught up on the trees in the larger reading forest. The children are small people, but that doesn't mean they aren't working on big questions. School should help.

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