Boys, Books and Story

scot and shaund reading 3yr lgI’m not sure why there’s so much fuss about boys and their reading habits. Maybe it has something to do with their over representation in crash statistics and suicides. Maybe there’s some sort of subliminal link between how boys perform in life and how much they read. I guess that could be true at school but it’s a bit of a stretch to see it affecting their life choices and their sense of wellbeing.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe stories are the way we connect with our history. They help us develop our imagination and capacity to visualise. Packaged stories in the form of books are a fairly recent invention for our tribe and there are other, more recent inventions that have a greater allure for some of our young blokes.

Games machines and the video culture are still story telling mediums. They have beginnings, middles and ends. They have characters and plots, heroes and villains. Anybody who thinks that young people have a short attention span have never watched them hooked into a movie or a game. When something captures their attention, it’ll hold it. The pathologies associated with excessive gaming are similar to workaholism. It’s staying focussed for long periods of time and the invariable effects on posture, concentration and sense of wellbeing.

I know kids who hide from life through gaming and video. I know kids who hide from life with books, too, but we don’t see that as so much of a shortfall. We strive for balance.

In the library at the secondary school in Kerang they have a dozen or so computers networked and the kids are allowed to play games on them at lunchtime. The library is certainly a boyzone and I watched a few guys browsing the bookshelves while they were waiting for their turn on the machines. It would have been hopeful to think that gamers would become readers due to the placement of computers but there was no doubting that the library was a popular place to be.

Kerang illustrates the passive way some boys relate to reading. They’re not ‘reluctant’ readers as such but more perfunctory about the process. They read when they have to—under duress in English classes—and at other times as a gap filler, not as a recreational pastime. Do we jump up and down about people who are reluctant to appreciate visual art or music or movies or dance or any of the zillion other story telling mediums we have?

I was a reluctant reader, bordering on recalcitrant. I didn’t read a novel of my own volition until I was seventeen. There was too much else going on in my world and the shit they made us read at school meant nothing to me. I did okay in English due to the fact I could wrangle the language and I enjoyed telling stories. I read the first and last few pages of the set text and winged the rest. It was something to be proud of in year ten to get an A for an exam on a book that I’d never actually read. Young people still get away with it and I get a perverse sort of thrill when I hear about it.

You can lead an eye to words but you cannot make them read.

In the same way you can’t make them appreciate any other form of art. But that doesn’t stop us adults from getting excited about books and sculpture and theatre and trying to foster an openness and enthusiasm for the dynamic expressions of life captured therein. That’s our job as parents and teachers and it’s important to keep shoving the books and art in their faces.

I know I was seventeen when I read my first novel because it was an epiphany. It was an obscure book called My Side of the Mountain by an obscure (to me) American author with the awkward (if not memorable) name of Jean Craighead George. It was a book handed to me by the librarian at school. I told him I’d look at it, like I did with all the other books he handed me, only this time I did. It hooked me in. A story about a runaway boy and his pet falcon subsisting in the wilderness. It was my school holiday adventures captured on the page. It was a fantastical slant on life as I knew it and it resonated to my core. It may have been the book or it may have been that I was ready, but it hit me. It put me on a journey—one that has taken me to amazing places and has no real end. It’s a journey that has challenged me, thrilled me and paid the bills for a number of years.

My mum and dad didn’t read much—other than the Sun—but they are fantastic story tellers and listeners. My own kids have book habits that we’ve variously encouraged and discouraged (to keep in balance with the rest of life) over the years and we read at bedtime. We have a family ritual around visiting the local library on Sunday afternoons. These are probably the habits of a bookish family but we rough and tumble, play sports and music and watch movies, too. There’s no pressure to read. It has grown out of a family habit of telling stories and reading aloud at bedtime. Just one facet in a myriad life.

Mark Latham and the Labor Party probably hit on something with the Read Aloud Australia policy they launched way back in January 2003. They proposed to give free books to new parents, develop parental literacy and read-aloud skills and make a bit of a fuss with Read Aloud Ambassadors and Read Aloud Week. I was concerned that the Read Aloud initiative didn’t mention libraries. My kids buzz into the library with the same thrill I had at that age (and to a degree, still fight to suppress) … all those books, all those possibilities, all those stories. And it’s all for free! But how do you choose? How’s Mark Latham going to choose ‘up to three books’ to give to the new parents of Australia? Will they be Australian books? Will he pick the eyes out of the national and state literary awards lists? Will he grab bestsellers?

I’m glad it’s not me trying to make the choice. Even if he decided to support Australian authors by choosing only Aussie books for the list, there are still hundreds of great books to choose from. I think the ‘up to three books’ could go into the libraries and the infrastructure money spent on promoting libraries on television to sex-up their status as community hubs in this information world. To attack our reading habits as a culture, I think we also need to bridge the gaps the way Harry Potter, and so many others, have slipped effortlessly between mediums. From book to screenplay to video game and pencil case.

Boys are probably well served by being familiar with the art of telling their own stories and listening to others. It’s the way we become connected to our community. It’s how we get our needs met and our point of view across. Reading is one way of enhancing that ability. There’s more than one way to bind a story.