The Crisis of Reading


After a study of Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism or PCIJ concluded that the Filipinos are a nation of non-readers, I subsequently came across Jessica Zafra (in Twisted 9) and Arlene Babst-Vokey (an article, Manila Chronicles circa 1987) ranting about the Filipino’s lack of book reading habits.

In fairness to the Filipinos, this decline in literary reading is actually a global phenomenon. A few examples: National Endowment for the Arts showed that there’s a decline in book reading among all age groups in America- the greatest decrease in the range of 18-24, 25-34, and 35-44; in a newspaper, a Hindu intellectual lamented on his countrymen’s waning reading habit; the National Centre for Research on Public Opinion study on “Cultural attitudes and consumption of cultural products in Bulgaria” showed that the national leisure is watching television, 57% against 8% of book reading; in Netherlands, the decline of leisure reading trends was documented by Wim Knulst and Gerbert Kraaykamp.

Therefore, we are one with the rest of the world? Uh-huh, in a manner worthy of a dirge. Then what is amiss?

It’s too easy to blame technology, and there’s nothing we can do about it because whether we like it or not, technology is here to stay. And lately, we’ve been employing the “if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them” attitude by utilizing technology to promote reading, i.e. film showing. This panacea seem to be convenient, as classic literature such as Jane Eyre, Les Miserables, and Wuthering Heights are now available in motion pictures. But then again, the film must act as a stimulant to read, not a substitute for it.

It’s easy to blame everything else- the parents, for not providing reading materials; the government, for depriving us of “good” libraries; it’s even easy to blame the student, for not wanting to read at all.

John McRae, however, a Special Professor of Language in Literature, says that this behavior implies more.  Students don’t read because they don’t know HOW to read, WHY they need to read at all, and WHAT reading can contribute to their lives. Furthermore, students refuse to learn how to read properly, which is by the way, an ability not easily acquired, for their conventional perception of reading is equal to studying. This examination-oriented attitude towards reading takes the students no further than- yes you guessed right-the examinations day.

Now the most obvious and easiest scapegoat of all, the subject itself, literature-and the way it’s been taught.

The crisis of literature as a subject boils down to its tedium. That’s easy to understand. In school, the greatest literary figures of the past are being “studied” rather than “read”- analyze, deconstruct, write, and prepare the students for examination. It’s also a sin I’m guilty of, without the teacher having to prod me into “studying” them. As an avid reader, I’m not contented with just reading a book; I deconstruct it with every possible criticism available in my arsenal, identify its literary period, and examine it as if it’s a specimen in a Petri dish. My only difference is I bask in the process- text and all the tedium of study. Now I realize that my manner and style of reading may not be applicable to others- a very important learning indeed.

Now that is not to say that the academic study of literature spoils the pleasure of reading. But it’s totally unnecessary for a reading material to be pressed with study.  So if we go back to the question, “What is amiss?”

The key, as I see it, was once succinctly uttered by the great intellectual B.F. Skinner. “We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading.”

In the school context, teachers shouldn’t be obsessed with reading the text in its entirety; instead the text must be cautiously chosen, careful study of what the text is for, reason for its existence and its significance in present times, and most importantly, communication with the teacher. This communication is comprised of communication between teacher and text, text and student, and teacher and student. This relationship will inevitably show a text’s (or a book’s) artistic, social, philosophical, etc. values that are meant to help us become better individuals, and ultimately become better citizens of the world.

With all those increments, who cannot risk to love reading?