So what's so great about reading?

26th April 1996 at 01:00
It is the last day of the Easter holidays, the last day for holiday homework. My 13-year-old is reading Julius Caesar, and you would think someone was pulling his toe-nails out with red-hot pincers.

Reading is a torture for him and for anyone around him. He sighs; he shifts and slouches. He turns his baseball hat backwards, then sideways, then backwards again. Then he takes the hat off and smoothes his hair. That means having to get up to check the hair in the mirror, which means going into the kitchen to find an apple, which means going outside and staring vacantly down into the pond.

Back again, he shoves his hand down the cracks in the sofa, finds a 20p piece and flips it as he reads. Losing it and scrabbling for it and losing it again passes the next 10 minutes and so on, and so on . . . until his mother is driven to start pronouncing those infuriatingly prim and puritanical parental admonitions ("look, the sooner you do it, the sooner it's done") that get passed down - yea, from generation unto generation - within families.

Why does he hate reading so much? He doesn't know, but when forced to think about it comes up with the following: he's can't get interested in "made-up" stories; he hates sitting still; he can't read very fast "and that's annoying"; there's always something better to do.

Over the years we have battled to make him read and failed. He has been led to Anne Fine and Nicholas Fiske and Brian Jacques, and he has not drunk. He's enjoyed tapes of Terry Pratchett, bedtime readings of Nina Bawden and productions of Shakespeare, but never been prompted to browse further. If taken to the library he will leave empty-handed ("there's nothing I want").

When he goes to bed he goes to sleep ("too tired to read") and he even recently spent six hours on an aeroplane that had a broken audio system - no video, no music - reading nothing more than the back of the sick bag.

Yet this is a bright child who is neither ill-educated nor emotionally malnourished. It's simply that, born into the electronic age, he prefers to get his information from computer, his stories from movies and his entertainment from CDs.

And if Sheffield University and the Roehampton Institute are to be believed, this is how boys are these days. They don't read; they wouldn't be caught dead reading; their machismo would never stand for it; and that's that.

But it isn't that simple. If I only had my son and his nose-in-a-book sister to go on, then I'd accept it was all about gender. But there's another non-reader in our family as well, a younger girl who, just like her brother before her, shows no inclination to read for pleasure and if forced to pick up a book will always plump for a puzzle book or pictorial information book over The Sheep Pig, or even Jill's Gymkhana.

And because I know them so well I'm pretty sure that this non-reading is as much a part of their physiological make-up as their blue eyes and brown hair. Both were adventurous as babies, unwilling to stay put for a second. Both are now energetic, restless and allergy-prone. Both came to reading slowly, struggling with difficulties like sorting a "b" from a "d", are hopeless spellers and find it infinitely easier to absorb information either aurally or through pictures and diagrams, than through text. As they have grown older, both have gravitated towards the computer and to physical pursuits in their free time.

And so what, just as long as they manage to read well enough to jump the educational hurdles in their paths? Because after years of struggling to get them to pick up books, I've come to question what's so great about reading, anyway.

Why is having your nose stuffed into Goodnight, Mr Tom an intrinsically better activity than slumping in front of City Slickers? Why do we assign so much more value to reading a Ted Hughes poem, say, than to following the instructions for building a model plane? Or to reading Anne of Green Gables than to playing Tetris on the computer?

In the past, books were revered because they offered the only avenue to an educated mind. But life moves on fast. The rock star Sting recently lamented the passing of the golden cultural age when everyone watched The Wednesday Play on television and then talked about it the next day.

But that era has fled just as fast as the good old days when readers waited, agog, for the next instalment of Nicholas Nickleby to be published. The cultural choices available to us now are almost limitless, as are information sources, and we must all pick 'n' mix our personal cocktail according to how we wish to live our lives.

And if some things get jettisoned along the way (try reading the opening chapter of Peter Pan to a modern child and see what happens), then new things are found.

When classroom computers were still a novelty, I stood by a junior school teacher and watched a boy who had barely been able to scribe his name with a pencil take his turn at the new machine and immediately begin to tap confidently at the keyboard. "And to think," she said, staring with astonishment as one recognisable word after another appeared on the screen, "that if he'd been born even a year earlier, I'd have had no idea."

Now I feel the same as I watch my library-hating son browse The Net, the mouse clamped to his hand like an extension of his arm.

His parents are bookish, so to them a failure to read is a very real failure. But that's their problem, not his. He's living his life in a different time. If their values have been sidelined, then plenty of others have come along to take their place.

A hundred years back, Wilde was already lamenting an age that read too much to be wise. Maybe today's wisdom can only come from understanding the choices available, and knowing how to choose what works for you. In fact, I'm grateful that, in their short lives, all my children have been influenced by adults whose view of the world is quite different from that of their parents, and who have introduced them to skills and pleasures their parents never dreamed could be theirs.

As I write this, I can hear that my son has abandoned Julius Caesar for the joy of playing blues piano. Should I worry that he can't keep his nose in a book for more than five minutes on end?

No. Good luck to him. His life might well be richer because of it.

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