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More on the reading crisis

CQ Researcher has just published a study on the reading crisis. I’ve copied a summary below. Cross-reference to previous post regarding Caleb Crain’s December 24 New Yorker article, “Twilight of the Books: What will life be like if people stop reading?” Crain’s article is listed in the CQR bibliography. CQ Researcher can be accessed through most college library database services, or try your local county library (Multnomah provides CQR). Of particular interest are the opposing viewpoint articles at the end of the CQR report, by poet Dana Gioia and Games2Train CEO, Marc Prensky. 

Reading Crisis?” by Marcia Clemmitt, February 22, 2008  

Do today’s youth read less than past generations?

The number of Americans who read for pleasure has been dropping for decades, and now recent data show the lowest levels ever, especially among Americans ages 15 to 24. At the same time, reading scores among teenagers are dropping. Some literacy experts are declaring the situation a crisis. They warn that with fewer fluent, habitual readers, America may soon lack not only the skilled workers needed for an information-based economy but also the informed voters crucial to democracy. Others dismiss such views as alarmist, arguing the data don’t capture the large amount of online reading today, especially by young adults. Technology experts also note that computers and video may be simply changing the form of literacy needed today, just as the printing press and typewriter did in ages past. While book reading formed the core of 20th-century literacy, in the 21st century literacy is more likely to mean writing blogs and instant messages as well as skimming online video and audio, along with text, to gather information.

  • Do young people read less than in the past?
  • Is there a literacy crisis?
  • Will harm be done if new technologies crowd out traditional reading?

The way in is the far out

John Cage opened the windows of the music room. He incorporated unintended as well as intended but unconventional sounds into music composition, thus acknowledging a modern electrocution of music that alters the sensorium. Music became an extension of our wired ears. The way in was the far out.

Cage created performance lectures, utilizing a multi-media approach that combined sound, text, and oral lecture with non-linear arrangement and movement of ideas, words, sentences as musical phrases, and anecdotal asides (his short-short stories approximating the Zen koan). Bulleted lines, multiple columns, and a variety of font characteristics permeate the text versions. The lectures are collected in the books “Silence” (1961) and “A Year From Monday” (1967). Cage’s initial attempts were an effort to incorporate his musical ideas into different modes of argument, so that the listener could “experience what I had to say rather than just hear about it” (“Silence,” Foreword). The lectures are measured compositions. The composer provides time values, tempo markings, directions for rhythm and pitch, and textual arrangements serving as bars and measures. Chance and indeterminacy informed Cage’s composition process:

“At Black Mountain College in 1952, I organized an event that involved the paintings of Bob Rauschenberg, the dancing of Merce Cunningham, films, slides, phonograph records, radios, the poetries of Charles Olson and M. C. Richards recited from the tops of ladders, and the pianism of David Tudor, together with my Juilliard lecture…The audience was seated in the center of all this activity” (“Silence,” Foreword).

Not everyone in the audience may have enjoyed the attempt to rearrange their sensorium. Cage relates, of his “Lecture on Nothing,” “One of the structural divisions was the repetition, some fourteen times, of a single page in which occurred the refrain, ‘If anyone is sleepy let him go to sleep.’ Jeanne Reynal, I remember, stood up part way through, screamed, and then said, while I continued speaking, ‘John, I dearly love you, but I can’t bear another minute.’ She then walked out.”

We may feel a similar response to some of today’s pervasive PowerPoint presentations. They are not written, or composed, but put together, as in “I put together a PowerPoint for today’s meeting.” The use of PowerPoint is itself a value assumption (warrant). Yet for organization and presentation of an argument for today’s reader (who has not the time, inclination, or patience for linear modes – a reader now beyond the Guttenberg Galaxy, outside the margins of McLuhan’s marginal man, a mosaic man), the persuasive possibilities of the PowerPoint slide show are hard to beat.

For a consideration of the potential ill effects of PowerPoint, see Ian Parker, “Can a Software Package Edit Our Thoughts?” The New Yorker, May 28, 2001.

Overhearing one’s own writing

In “The Gutenberg Galaxy” (1962), Marshall McLuhan was the first modern blogger. Though published in traditional book form, the structure resembles many of today’s blogs. Norman O. Brown followed suit with “Love’s Body,” in 1966. McLuhan and Brown built their books on a framework of short paragraphs full of quotes, or links, to a cornucopia of sources – both books cite hundreds of references. The writing is often aphoristic, cryptic, anecdotal. The quotes become like comments that propel the blog onward. 

McLuhan suggests that in the medieval world reading was oral. Monks read aloud, even when reading alone, because they had to hear the word in order to process its meaning (p. 115). Reading silently is a developmental skill, and some readers never master the skill of reading directly from eye to memory, but must mouth the words, moving their tongues silently. They read by hearing their own voice.

Brown said, “Our identity is always a case of mistaken identity” (p. 144). What is the identity within our writing? Are there times when the identity within our writing is a case of mistaken identity? 

Harold Bloom, in his portentous but readable book, “Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human,” suggests that Montaigne influenced Shakespeare, but says Montaigne’s essay, “Of Experience,” seems Shakespearean. Bloom’s subject in his final chapter is “foregrounding,” and he draws attention to this characteristic of Montaigne: “Montaigne, like Shakespeare’s greatest characters, changes because he overhears what he himself has said. It is in reading his own text that Montaigne becomes Hamlet’s precursor at representing reality in and by himself” (1998, p. 739). Montaigne wrote what he spoke, like he spoke. In other words, he practiced E. B. White’s “reminder” to “Write in a way that comes naturally” (p. 70). Yet Montaigne said that he spoke differently depending on his environment; he talked differently when conversing in Paris than when in Montaigne. Montaigne’s “principal aim and virtue,” in his writing, was “to be nothing but myself” (p. 113). He said “I speak on paper as I do to the first person I meet” (p. 115). Montaigne avoided affectation by accepting language as alive and therefore always changing: “I reject nothing which is current on the streets of France, for the man who would correct usage by grammar is a simpleton” (p. 113). 

We don’t encourage a writing anarchy; listen, and learn to compare your voice to the voice of others. Overhear your own writing. We don’t want to all sound the same; neither do we want to write the same. We want to write with originality and individuality. We want our voice to be our own, but we want others to be able to listen to our voice easily, without straining to hear. Read your writing aloud. What’s the identity of the speaker? Have someone else read your paper aloud to you. Is your writing true to your natural voice? Does your writing sound natural to you, or does it sound stilted, awkward, falsely academic? Try to overhear.

“You Can’t Write Writing”

We hear instructors across the curriculum bemoaning sloppy grammar. This apparent neglect of grammar is like the outbreak of some sort of flu, symptoms of the contagion appearing in papers everywhere. But our friends across the curriculum have the correct antidote: everyone should correct grammar when reading papers. But any diagnosis of unclear writing should consider more than grammar.  

Wendell Johnson, in “You Can’t Write Writing,” argued that English teachers had not been effective teachers of writing because they had emphasized grammar over purposeful writing. He opened with a quote from the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow: “The late Clarence Darrow, while speaking one day to a group of professors of English and others of kindred inclination, either raised or dismissed the basic problem with which his listeners were concerned by asking, “Even if you do learn to speak correct English, who are you going to talk it to? …What Mr. Darrow was contending can be summarized in the statement that the effective use of the English language is more important than the ‘correct’ use of it, and that if you can speak English ‘correctly,’ but not effectively, it does not matter very much ‘who you talk it to.’ ” 

Johnson, president of the International Society for General Semantics in the mid 1940’s, argued that English teachers had done a poor job of teaching writing skills, evidenced by the fact that he was forced in his job to teach students with sixteen years of grammar experience (i.e. graduate students) “how to write clear and meaningful and adequately organized English.” Johnson did not believe teaching grammar produced good writers: “In fact, it appears that the teachers of English teach English so poorly largely because they teach grammar so well. They seem to confuse or identify the teaching of grammar with the teaching of writing.” This in an era when students presumably read more, yet: “These students exemplify the simple fact that although one may have learned how to write with mechanical correctness, one may still have to learn how to write with significance and validity.” 

Johnson cited three reasons why English teachers failed to teach effective writing: they did not teach by example; they did not teach “writing-about-something-for-someone”; and they considered that writing, an art, could not be taught. But Johnson’s students committed few grammatical errors. “First of all, it is to be made clear that grammatical errors are not particularly serious.” The English teachers had done a good job teaching grammar; nevertheless, Johnson’s graduate students were unable to write clearly. In our time, we must contend with bad grammar, unclear writing, and a public that undervalues reading. 

We have argued that a good writer is first a good reader, and that a good reader is a good proofreader, constantly editing for clarity, conciseness, and purpose. All writing should be purposeful and aimed at a target audience. One learns writing while writing, and probably in no other way. What kind of paper can we expect from a student who neither reads nor writes? We have seen that bad writing is often the evidence of bad thinking, and that bad thinking is often a consequence of a lack of reading experience. 

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of standing in a small group and being asked by some lost motorist for directions. Someone in the group probably stepped up enthusiastically to offer simple if confused directions. Another may have interrupted with a reasoned opinion of the best route. Someone else may have entered with a third opposing viewpoint, suggesting yet a better route. What was the problem: the map, the roads, the destination, personal driving experience, the blank response from the increasingly frustrated driver? And of course, at the bottom of the hill, the car turned left when everyone had at least agreed on the need to turn right. It may sometimes feel to students that they are like lost travelers, making wrong turns at every corner, misunderstanding seemingly contradictory directions, uncertain which way to turn next. 

“You Can’t Write Writing” was anthologized in “The Use and Misuse of Language”: Selected Essays from ETC: A Review of General Semantics, edited by S. I. Hayakawa. Harper and Brothers, 1962.

 

Sister Maryquill’s Style Guide: An APA/MLA etc. Primer

When McCluhan wrote, in “The Gutenberg Galaxy,” “…the scholar in print culture can have acceptance for his accuracy even though he has nothing to say,” he may have been thinking of Sister Maryquill’s class, in Los Angeles, circa 1957.  

Sister Maryquill’s requirements led the young scholar down a straight path toward accuracy, clarity, and conciseness before he even contemplated the writing of words or numbers. These requirements included clean, white, three hole punched, wide margin, ruled folder paper. For a page ripped from a spiral notebook, one subtracted points, minus 10%. If from the ripped page dangled hanging chads, or if chad confetti littered the floor around one’s desk, one subtracted more points, minus an additional 10%. One used red and black pencils, #2, both, for Arithmetic, blue ink pen for English. There were no other subjects. A single, 12 inch ruler, 3 hole punched, completed every student’s toolbox – no borrowing allowed.

Samples from Sister’s Guide: “In Arithmetic, divide the width of the paper from the left margin line to the right edge in half, measuring 3 inches from the top of the paper and 3 inches from the bottom, making a tiny dot with red pencil to mark your measurements. Hold your ruler vertically aligned against the dots to get plumb. Using your red pencil, draw a straight line from the top ruled line to the bottom of the page. Hold your ruler horizontally across the first ruled line. Draw over the line with your red pencil.” 

“At the top of every page write in capital letters without punctuation JMJ. On the first page, in the top, right hand corner, write your name. Under your name, write the date. Under the date, write the subject. Under the subject, write the assignment. On subsequent pages, in the same top right hand corner space, write only your name, but under your name, write the page number, only the number.”

The classroom stapler was reserved for special occasions. For regular, daily work: “When submitting work of multiple pages, fold the top left hand corner down, creating an equilateral triangle, rip the paper inward from the center of the outside edge, and double back the top side.”  

In Sister Maryquill’s English class, thesis stated, theme explored, but within the confines described above: blue ink on proper, white folder paper; writing aligned neatly against the left, red margin; double-spaced, cursive – all under the watchful eyes of JMJ. But there was more preparation required of the English paper, for every sentence required diagramming, properly, to avoid its being stricken. One used red pencil and ruler for the lines of the diagram, and blue ink pen for the words. Of course, there were many violations other than improper diagrams that warranted striking sentences, and many paragraphs starting with a dozen sentences or more ended with none.

Time for recess.

Live Reading, Patricia Marx

At Powell’s on Hawthorne last night, Patricia Marx read from her national bestseller, newly released in paperback, “Him Her Him Again the End of Him.” In addition to reading from and talking about the book, Patricia talked about her experiences writing for Saturday Night Live, Rugrats, and the New Yorker. The small audience of about twenty readers, warmly bundled for the freezing windchill outside, enjoyed the reading, sitting on folding chairs, in the small open space between the music and crime sections. 

Patricia did not read from notes, speaking discursively, in a style suggesting someone thinking aloud. She lacked confidence in her reading – or feigned this – at one point trying to play a recording of the book, but unfamiliarity with a new stereo dashed the plan, and she returned to reading with her own voice. But the audience preferred the author’s own even if perhaps poor voice to a recording; that’s why the readers came. 

In part from audience prompts, she mentioned advice she found useful for her writing. Paraphrased in the bullets below, the advice seems to inform her approach to writing: 

1.      Write a book only you can write;

2.      Surprise your reader;

3.      Don’t waste words;

4.      Write and go (she doesn’t work from an outline). 

Against this reasonable, practical advice, she said she wrote the book nights, over a period of approximately a year and a half. She came across as a working writer, a non-academic – though she was one of the first women on the staff of the Harvard Lampoon. Awakening to the opportunity to attend a live reading by a working writer in a small group setting is really the reason for this post.

Here’s the link to the Powell’s calendar. http://www.powells.com/calendar.html

 

On Reading Well

In discussion last night we asked what makes for a good writer, what characterizes good writing, how do we recognize good writing. And so we talked about what makes good writing good. The discussion was lively, full of ideas, suggestions, and opinions. We stacked boxes of clarity in the back corner. Someone brought in bowls of mixed claims to snack on, and we helped ourselves to a refreshing punch from a glass bowl filled with assumptions.  

Then we asked what makes for a good reader, what characterizes good reading, how do we recognize good reading. And so we talked about what makes good reading good. But the discussion was chilly, quiet – only one light box of definitions, few suggestions, and thinly scattered opinions. The snacks ran out and the party seemed over. 

Writing is learned while writing, and probably in no other way. Memorization of all the many rules will not guarantee good writing. But we are not born pen in hand, fingers on a keyboard, or standing in front of an audience, our argument committed to memory and practiced. If bad writing is often the evidence of bad thinking, does bad reading result in bad writing? A good writer is a good reader. A good reader is a good proofreader. But what do we proofread for – for our own comprehension and understanding of what’s going on? But even if we can read something good with success, does it follow we can write something good with equal success? It’s possible that a good reader is, first, an imaginative reader, one who reads with imagination; but what do we mean by imagination, childhood wonder, or Wallace Stevens’s reading lamp (orange sun in his clear blue sky), the one unconcerned that we might not get it, for we may not even stop to think there’s something to get, that that’s what it’s all about, the other concerned with reality. Many of us fear writing – just as we might fear speaking before groups; do we fear reading in similar ways? How do we get over these fears?

In “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser says “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English” (p. 9). Then, without warning, he accuses the reader of being “someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds…” (p. 9). We suppose Steven Toulmin meant something similar when he said, “The effort the writer does not put into writing, the reader has to put into reading.” Nevertheless, much reading does require effort, supreme effort to read Stevens, to use one of his words, though of course Toulmin was probably not speaking of poetry, but even so, Stevens’s essays are just as difficult as his poetry; anyway, Toulmin also makes it plain he doesn’t want people using his ideas dogmatically, and another of what he calls his “mottoes” is “no theory is self-validating.”

We are working on keeping our posts short, around 500 words seems right for our purpose, but if we don’t get the right 500 words in the right order we find that what we’ve written often sounds too cryptic; nevertheless, we end now with the following, from A. W. Ward’s “Dickens”:        

“Dickens…perceived that in order to succeed as a reporter of the highest class he needed something besides the knowledge of shorthand. In a word, he lacked reading; and this deficiency he set himself to supply as best he could by a constant attendance at the British Museum. Those critics who have dwelt on the fact that the reading of Dickens was neither very great nor very extensive, have insisted on what is not less true than obvious; but he had this one quality of the true lover of reading, that he never professed a familiarity with that which he knew little or nothing” (p. 10).  

“Inasmuch as he was no great reader in the days of his authorship, and had to go through hard times of his own before, it was well that the literature of his childhood was good of its kind, and that where it was not good it was at least gay. Dickens afterwards made it an article of his social creed, that the imagination of the young needs nourishment as much as their bodies require food and clothing; and he had reason for gratefully remembering that at all events the imaginative part of his education had escaped neglect” (p. 4). 

Ward, A. W. (1882). Dickens. London: Macmillan and Co. p. 10. Digitalized by Google:

Olson, Gary A. “Literary theory, philosophy of science, and persuasive discourse: Thoughts from a neo-premodernist.” [interview with Stephen Toulmin] JAC: Journal of Advanced Composition 13.2 (1993): 283-310.

Vocabulary Building

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Our reading vocabulary is probably larger than our speaking vocabulary. Our writing vocabulary might be larger than our speaking one, but probably is not as large as our reading one. The best way to improve our vocabulary is by reading. But what do we mean by improve vocabulary? More words? Better words? Big words? But what do we mean by better words? If two different words mean the same thing, what difference would it make which we use? Do we mean better words for certain situations – for we sometimes find ourselves at the proverbial loss for words, depending on who’s in on the conversation or the nature of the discussion? Maybe by improving our vocabulary we simply mean increasing the frequency of when we seem to be in possession of the right word at the right time. If that’s what we mean, we might need more words, not necessarily big words – but right words; where and how do we find and master more words that are useful, not too big, but just right?

The best way to build vocabulary is by reading with a dictionary close by (reading what we’ll save for a later post). However, building vocabulary by reading can be a slow process, and so we offer, not, hopefully, in the spirit of the age of instant gratification, but in the spirit of efficiency, and utility, the Funk and Lewis, “30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary.” We know – sounds like Charles Atlas or Jack LaLanne for the tongue. But this is an effective book, and offers the same formula Atlas and LaLanne offered: focus on exercise and diet. Numerous editions, with exercises, so you need a fresh copy.

Opening dialog above is from Lewis Carroll’s ”Through the Looking Glass” (originally published in 1871), Chapter VI, Humpty Dumpty.

The Idea of Self-Portrait Writing, or A Portrait of the Writer as Reader

In Montaigne’s autobiography, we find an essay titled “Why I Paint My Own Portrait”: 

“One day I was at Bar-le-Duc when King Francis II was presented a portrait that King Rene of Sicily had made of himself. Why, in a like manner, isn’t it lawful for every one of us to paint himself with his pen, as Rene drew himself with a crayon?” 

We all have a particular picture of ourselves – seldom, perhaps, the same picture that others have of us. And this is true of people we know and see and talk to face-to-face. Though we see eye-to-eye, we nevertheless find ourselves mired in misunderstanding. Unstated assumptions carpet beneath our oratorical feet like banana peels. Our rhetorical situations may be hopelessly complicated when our tools for communicating with one another are limited to reading and writing.  

Montaigne again; this reader advisory from “What I Find In My Essays”:

“The titles of my essays do not always embrace their content. Often they denote it merely by a sign. It is the careless reader who loses track of the subject, not I. There will be always hid in a corner some word which, however hard to find, will not fail to bring him back.”

Montaigne tells us why and how he writes, and why and how he reads. This from “The Days When I Read”:

“For my part, I like only easy and amusing books which tickle my fancy, or such as give me counsel and comfort. If I use them for study, it is to learn how to know myself, and to teach myself the proper way to live and die.”

Montaigne found reading useful, and his reading fueled his writing. If bad writing is usually the evidence of bad thinking, we find little to no bad thinking in Montaigne. He appears to have learned writing from writing, however, not from reading. And he would argue that one learns writing from the regular practice of it, and in no other way. His writing is not simply his thinking put to paper:

“Drawing this portrait after my own model, I have often been forced to drape and rearrange myself in order that the pose may offer a truer likeness, with the result that I have created for myself a fresher and brighter complexion than I began with. My book has made me as much as I have made my book. It is of the same stuff as the author, a limb of my body, devoted to its own being and not to the concerns of its reader, as are other books.”

Montaigne is constantly making claims and questioning them, evaluating evidence, his own or that of others, looking for what has been left out, and why, verifying the presence of an opposing view and analyzing it for its strengths and weaknesses, weighing the possibilities of suggested solutions. If thesis states, theme explores; Montaigne explores themes, but his great theme is himself:

“Meditation is ample exercise for the man who knows how to explore and use himself. No occupation is at once idler and more fruitful – according to the character of our mind – than entertaining one’s own thoughts. Great men make it their life work. Moreover, Nature has favored us in it: for there is nothing we can keep at so long and easily. It is the business of the gods, says Aristotle; and it creates both their happiness and ours.”

If a good writer is a good reader, if good reading precedes good writing, just as existence might precede essence, Montaigne explains why: “With its variety of matter, reading above all awakens my reasoning power. It puts my judgment to work, not my memory. And I would rather forge my mind than furnish it.”

Lowenthal, Marvin. Autobiography of Michel de Montaigne. Vintage Book, V34.  First published in 1935 by Houghton Mifflin Company.

n+1 clips The Believer’s sneakers

n+1‘s review of The Believer accuses McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers of failing to transcend childhood (i.e. go beyond his roots) – but entanglement in one’s own roots is an honest place to start writing (note the unstated assumptions throughout the n+1review, including one should transcend childhood, childhood being peopled by children – apparently not a good place to be).

Eggers, in the San Francisco tradition of Jack London (and, n+1 gives us, Eric Hoffer), lives and writes in the real world. n+1 compares The Believer to Mad Magazine, casting Eggers in the role of adult child. n+1‘s evidence?: A writing tutor program for children called 826 Valencia founded and worked by Eggers and other volunteers – to teach writing to children. Apparently, things don’t get more childish than that in n+1‘s world.

We have subscribed to and have been reading The Believer since its inception, and look forward to each issue, but we have now added n+1 to our reading stack. And while we’ve not quite reached the point where we might want to renew our Mad subscription, our recent review of its web site, suggested by n+1, found no shortage of adult content.

For a complete review comparing n+1 to The Believer see A. O. Scott in the New York Times.