June 02, 2004
The menace of visual entertainment

We all sort of knew this, didn't we?

Almost a third of young teenagers have so little passion for reading that they cannot name a favourite story book, according to a poll that suggests most youngsters' reading tastes are prompted by the big screen.

A survey of 300 seven- to 14-year-olds, heralding the launch in September of a national storytelling festival for children, indicates that a love of books withers as children get older. Across the age range, one in five has no best-loved read.

The poll, published by the Prince of Wales Arts and Kids Foundation on the eve of the national release of the latest Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, reveals that the schoolboy wizard is the most popular read of those children naming a favourite book, with just over half placing it in their top three.

JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, also acquiring new life and new audiences in cinemas, is popular with 25%, followed by Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The findings were yesterday described by the children's laureate, Michael Morpurgo, a patron of the foundation, as confirmation that "a great welter of children simply don't read".

If you define education as reading, then clearly movies, TV, etc., are undermining education. But what if understanding pictures – how to make them, how to use them, how they work – is now more of what education does consist of, and should consist of, than in the pre-TV age, and in particular the pre-digital age? That makes sense to me.

Ask me which are the stories I now have a passion for, and most of the answers are movies, not books. So I am a traitor in the camp of the readers, like one of those teachers pointed to in the report above who lacks a passion for books, by which they mean story books.

I still read books, for history, technical understanding and social theorising. But less and less do I read them for diverting stories. When I do read a good old-fashioned sit-up-and-beg story, I am as likely as not reading it because of the social theories and history embodied in it, rather than for fun. (Example: I'm now scrutinising Dickens' Hard Times, which is a fascinating source of educational rumination, in this spirit of non-entertainment. If I want to be entertained by Hard Times, I get a video adaptation of it.) There are a few middlebrow contemporary exceptions, like Susan Isaacs and Nick Hornby, whose contemporary stories I read as and when I encounter them (preferably at knock-down prices a year after they've come out), but I almost never now read "literature" for fun. Would this make me a force for evil as an educator?

I still think the 3Rs are crucial, if only to read and type the captions on the pictures and to keep count of all the pixels and megabytes etc.

Devoted readers of everything that I write - and I know that such people exist because I met one in 1995 (although I pity the poor bastard now) – will be aware that this posting could just as easily have gone on my Culture Blog. I put it here because writing good stuff for here is harder. This is because by simply not being asleep I am immersed in my Culture, but the world of Education does not now (yet – keep reading) force itself upon my attention quite so completely or so often, and in order to write about it even half-adequately, I have either to think a little, or to steal – or as we bloggers call it: link.

As regulars here will know, the policy here, now, for reasons which this posting has been all about, is to have gratuitous pictures, often only marginally relevant to the matter in hand, to arouse the interest of readers and keep their attention, stop them staring out of the window or sending text messages to each other instead of paying attention to me, etc. So here is a gratuitous Harry Potter picture:

TimePotter.jpg

There is an obvious danger to putting up pictures here, which is that my readers won't bother to actually read what I've put, but will merely guess its meaning by looking at the pictures, and thereby acquire extremely bad "reading" (not proper reading at all of course) habits which will stand them in very bad stead in their future lives. But this is a risk I believe I must take. After all, if I can't persuade you to want to read this stuff, you'll never learn to read properly. The point to grasp is that (a) all these squiggles do actually mean something, and that (b) you must decypher all of them.

I found this picture here. You want to read? Read all that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:28 PM
Category: Literacy