Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Power of Literature – Texts Teach

1. An introduction

D.W. Harding (1972) suggested that “reading, like daydreaming and gossiping is a means to offer or be offered symbolic representations of life”.

I quote Harding not to relegate reading, and specifically literature, to the status of any representation of lived experience. This is the folly of postmodernism whose most extreme advocates would argue that all texts are equal, that the TV advertisement, graffiti, the bumper sticker, the poem, a Twitter ’tweet’, blog posts, a play and the newspaper editorial are all texts that can have equal value. The most extreme advocates of deconstructive postmodernism oppose the notion that some texts have greater value and contribute significant cultural worth. True, all texts have value, but I believe that literature as the pinnacle of the narrative form has special power and significance that must never be trivialised or reduced. Any civilised society that relegates literature to just one possible means to know and communicate is making a significant mistake.

Reading literature offers the opportunity to grasp meanings in narrative form that are important. The words of other people, whether in spoken and written form, allow us to reflect on the consequences and possibilities of their experiences. Just as I am affected by human tragedy in my world, I am also affected by the tragedy of characters in books. So too with joy, amusement, fear, love, curiosity, love and sadness. For some fortunate children living protected and safe lives, books can also provide their first experience of hatred, death, disease, isolation, war, divorce and so on. These are aspects of the human condition that are important to understand without necessarily needing to experience them personally. Books allow us to reflect on these and other experiences, and hence come to a greater understanding of our world and ourselves. Literature also fulfils another vital function; as we share an experience of literature, it can act both as mortar to build rich personal and textual histories, and can act as bridges between our lives and the lives of others.

Over the next few posts I intend to unpack a few of the ways that literature has an impact on our lives, in order to argue that it has special value, even in this multimedia age.

2. Literature 'teaches'

In the rest of this post I want to suggest that texts teach many things. Yes, they teach children new words, they help them to understand how language works, they reinforce the learning of decoding skills and so on (so does Sesame Street). But literature offers even more sophisticated lessons. Let me share a simple personal anecdote that illustrates some of what I am arguing. It is an anecdote that answers the question that Margaret Meek thoughtfully poses in her book ‘How books teach what readers learn. Her question is “how do children learn to distinguish the hero from the villain?” Jacob (my eldest grandson) learned a related lesson during a reading of Brenda Parkes simple predictable picture book titled ‘Who’s in the Shed?

The story is a simple predictable book situated on a farm. A truck arrives in the night and the next day the farm animals take it in turns to peer through the cracks of the shed to work out who has been put in the shed? The climax of the story comes when the pig finally looks and the circus bear roars “HOW DARE YOU STARE!” When I tried to read this to Jacob aged 19 months, I wasn’t able to sustain his interest long enough to reach the end of the story on the first two occasions that I read it. But by the third reading a day or so later I reached the climax of the story, and growled as the bear was revealed. Jacob jumped slightly and said “again”, meaning of course he wanted it read again.

On the next reading when the final page was reached and I roared the words of the bear he jumped and ran to the door of the room looking back at the picture. He didn’t want to hear it again that day.

For several days he would enter the room and move tentatively towards the book, open several pages then retreat to a safe distance and make a growling noise. It took him some months until we could read it again.

3. What had Jacob learned?

Jacob learned many things from the reading of this simple book. Of course, learning is cumulative, he didn't completely learn these things in the one reading, but the reading was what I call a 'critical incident'. Here are a few of the things he learned from the encounter:
  • That not all bears are cute and cuddly like his Pooh Bear that he carried everywhere
  • That books have the power to shift the emotions
  • That authors often reveal the most important bit at the end
  • That in the normal events of life things can happen that will scare us
  • Authors structure and layer their meanings to tell their story
  • Words and pictures have a relationship in books

In this simple example we see illustrated the partial answer to Margaret Meek’s question. Literature provides one significant way in which children explore the sometimes troubling territory of fantasy and reality, truth and fiction. They may never meet a real ‘villain’ but they can encounter many in books. In the world of literature they will encounter new fears but also wonderful lessons concerning justice, love, life, death, human diversity, hope and despair. I wrote a book some years ago titled ‘Other worlds: The endless possibilities of literature’ (1990). The title pointed to one of the key concerns of the book, literature opens up worlds not normally available to be experienced firsthand by children.

In my future posts on this topic I intend to build on this post as I argue for the special place that literature plays in our lives and the key role that it should have in any home or classroom.

Related Posts

The importance of literature (here)
Truth and the Internet (here)
My previous posts on literature (label here)

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