We have recently been encouraged as fathers, not for the first time, to be ‘seen reading’ in a family context. I am sure I am not the only father who has at times felt a twinge of guilt that they are not sitting around reading novels in front of their children. I’m rather busy during the day, with five young children. The older children have plenty to do as well, helping around the house, and I often have to tell them to put down their book, because there’s work to be done.
I very rarely read in front of my children, but I regularly read to them. I have continued to do this as they have got older. My eldest is now ten, and each evening I read The Lord of the Rings to the three oldest of my five children. They could all read the book themselves, and indeed they struggle to resist the temptation to do so. If any one of them lets slip a piece of knowledge that could only have come from reading ahead, he or she is roundly condemned by the others for spoiling the shared experience of discovering the book together. (At this point I should confess to never having read it myself before now – so I’m sharing the experience too).
Family reading is a natural and enjoyable activity which was common before the advent of television. It was not confined to small children. Why should they have all the fun? Dickens’ Household Words was squarely aimed at the families who would read out loud each episode of his novels, savouring the plot as it was gradually unveiled, much in the way that a family might watch Coronation Street together (although with multiplying channels and electronic devices in family homes, even that shared experience is less and less common nowadays).
Reading silently is a very solitary activity. It has its pleasures and it has its purpose, but is perfectly understandable that there are many who do not wish to remain solitary for long periods of time: boys and girls, children and adults, may wish to be sociable more often than they are alone. If literature is presented primarily as being solitary and silent, why are we surprised that many say ‘No thanks, I’d rather watch a film or play a video game with my mates’?
Literature was rarely consumed in silent solitude until the advent of the novel, which, combined with industrialisation and mass literacy, turned it into a commodity for mass production and individual consumption. Before that innovation, literature consisted of poetry and drama, both intended for public performance and communal enjoyment.
I used to wonder why it was that although I have always enjoyed poetry, and I even wrote a PhD on it, I have very rarely spent much time reading it when I was not preparing an essay on it or teaching it. Now I have found the answer. Poetry is not intended for silent, solitary consumption. It is intended for memorisation and recitation. At last, I have found the key to enjoying poetry. It is almost as odd to sit and read poetry silently as it would be to sit and read a Mozart score rather than listening to a performance or humming a tune from your favourite concerto. Reading a musical score is the sort of rarefied activity that a few initiates might enjoy, but one would never expect it to become a popular pastime.
Every truly human activity is a communal, shared activity at root, whether it is politics, religion or art. When these activities become privatised, they lose their vital energy, and cease to appeal to the majority of people. We should not, therefore, be surprised at how few people read serious literature.
Along with the family home, school is an ideal place in which to rediscover the original purpose of literature. In a school, poetry can be shared through a communal effort at memorisation and recitation. Novels can be shared by reading passages out loud in a dramatic and vivid style. Literature can be released from its silent, rather gloomy modern prison and can once more become public property, in a form which appeals to people just because they’re human, not because they’re scholars who enjoy spending many hours at a stretch in silent solitude poring over the written word, or bored consumers with so much time to kill that they can afford to spend half of their day in a private fantasy world.