Friday, June 15, 2007

Fostering the Spirit of Reading

Every few years or so, I seem to be repeating the same events in my blog entry: I wasn't always a bibliophile. For most of my childhood until my teen years, I didn't read a lot of books. I did read the occasional Choose Your Own Adventure but that was it and it probably numbered less than a dozen in a year.

Of course having said that, I was always a reader.

I didn't read a lot of books but I did read a lot of magazines. I was reading anywhere between to to three magazines every month from cover to cover, and that's saying much considering I was what, six or seven at the time. And of all things to read, I was reading video game magazines because I was such a big fan of video games back then (and probably still am).

In high school, I wouldn't exactly say I "graduated" from magazines to books. Rather, I think it's more appropriate to say that books gave me a different choice, a different experience. When I'm in the bathroom and looking for a quick read, I want a magazine. Because you know, a magazine article is waaay shorter than a novel. And then when I want a long-term investment in story, that's when I read novels. Books seemed better than TV at the time, and gave me story choices that appeared nowhere else (back in a time when character deaths were rare on TV cartoons unless we were talking about anime).

Of course because of my dorky look (braces, glasses, lack of a fashion sense, skinny), people always assumed I was a bookworm. For me the killer was when my mother would take credit for my interest in reading: "He's probably a reader because he got infected by me. When I was at the hospital, pregnant, all I did was read books." Of course this was a time when I had to depend on my parents for book money and whenever I wanted a book, I had to ask them. Honestly, it didn't come up often but my mom would say that whenever I'd ask her to buy a book. More of my requests at the time was to buy video games. Or upgrade the computer.

So what's my point? Perhaps if we want to encourage reading, we shouldn't necessarily focus on books. There are other avenues to motivate reading after all and they're not "inferior" to books. If people fall in love with books, great. But there are similarly lots of interesting reading material out there. A lot of readers/writers might scoff at something like Reader's Digest but hey, at least it has readers. And then we have publications like Digest of Philippine Genre Stories and it's not a book, yes, but it does contain stories just like any anthology would. Many authors have also contributed great short stories to publications like Playboy Magazine (debunking the joke "I read it for the articles" because apparently, people do!).

While it's good to encourage reading books, I think it would also similarly be wrong to force them upon people. Unfortunately, this is what's happening in schools (your call if this is a necessary evil or not) and it's also what discourages them from picking it up again. Now I'm not saying we abolish "required reading" texts. But the fact of the matter is, people in general don't take kindly to others forcing something down their throat. And while reading books can be a pleasure to bibliophiles, it can similarly be slow torture to others who aren't willing to take that first step yet.

At the end of the day, I also think we should start small. My classmates don't whine about reading The Little Prince, but do start complaining when it comes to Shakespeare. Sometimes, it's all about presentation, breaking the text into chunks that don't seem daunting. Some students are more open to reading "a few" handouts than a big book outright. The novella Flowers for Algernon is actually quite long yet my entire class managed to read all of it, miraculously, because it was in the form of photocopied handouts instead of an actual book.

At the end of the day, I think it's important to start with baby steps. Ever since I was a kid, I was reading the Bible one chapter at a time. It takes me what, five to ten minutes each day? But perhaps the good thing about it is that I get to practice my reading muscles every day. So those of you religiously minded might want to start a similar routine. Those who dislike the Catholic church can practice on other books, such as something like The Art of War or Book of Five Rings which are neatly divided into small chunks or precepts. Some business books are similarly designed (such as John Maxwell's Laws of Leadership).

Fostering the joy of reading and fostering the joy of reading books I think are two different things. I think in undertaking a mission, it should be clear what our goal is. Because as much as reading and reading books are concerned, there's a room for overlap, but they're not necessarily the same. The latter is more specific, and if that's what we really want to foster, I'd probably use a different methodology to achieve that goal.

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