Most people who came through Eng lit O-levels, A-levels and university in the 1960s learned that literature was something that contained challenging meanings. The best way to get at this meaning was to read closely, read criticism and listen to your teacher.
Between then and now, everyone wanting to teach literature has been confronted with "theory": perhaps there isn't a text, just the set of meanings that your imagination constructs? Perhaps there isn't a writer, merely a system that re-jigs previously said and written things? Perhaps the text isn't "what's there" but really "what isn't there"? This was all quite stunning for pre-Seventies educated people like me. In my case, it has made me (and still does) review over and over again how I had learned to read, why I write and how I teach on an MA module in children's literature.
It seems to me that no matter which way I may lean, the encounter between the reader and the book is at the heart of the matter. This is not a matter of unlocking a code: writer puts experience into code, criticism deciphers code, true meaning becomes clear. That would be a simple jug-and-mug matter: writer fills jug with meaningful stuff and once the reader learns how to lift and pour, he or she pours out the meaning. Rather, what seems to be going on is that a writer creates a text from two kinds of experience: life and the reading. A reader encounters this text and then works on it using the same two kinds of experience too: life and previous reading. However, the encounter itself can be crucial: where, how and why does it take place? Reading a book for an exam is often a very different kind of reading from sitting on a bus reading a book that your friend suggested.
A recent report from Demos, "Creative Reading: Young People, Reading and Public Libraries" (www.demos.co.uk) is in a way a consequence of these kinds of questions. Many years ago we might have thought that libraries were places that contained the body of necessary and desirable knowledge and that what ought to take place is for this knowledge to be transferred as easily and as pleasurably as possible to as wide an audience as possible. However, the report reminds us that reading is as much about how you read as what you read. They provocatively use the phrase "creative reading".
I have sympathies with this. My experience of the past few years going round schools is that the central idea that now dominates the teaching of literature is interrogation: if teachers and examiners interrogate children about books, then the teaching and learning can be evaluated, quantified and assessed. The peculiar thing about this is that it has absolutely nothing to do with why writers write nor, for that matter, why anyone outside of school and college courses reads books.
What seems to have been forgotten is that if you want people to read more, if you want them to think about what they read, if you want them to enter into conversations about what they read then the whole process has to work to a different model: not interrogation but active reflection. The Demos report seems to be saying that libraries are places where this can and should happen.
Even so, I have Utopian tendencies towards education too. Imagine if we had a moratorium on asking children and students questions about books to which we knew the answer. Out the window would go having to explain why this bit of alliteration was effective. Instead, teachers would ask: is there anything about this book that puzzled you? Did it remind you of anything in your life, or of anything else that you have heard about, read, or seen?
Or maybe, the first response to a text in class would not be a question. It might be another story. Or asking people in the book some questions: hey Goldilocks, what did you say to your mum when you got back from the bears'
house? Hey Gertrude, why did you shack up with Claudius? Maybe these moratorium sessions could be when children go to the library. But it could be dangerous: the children and students might ask questions we do not know the answers to.
Michael Rosen's latest book, This Is Not My Nose, is published by Penguin, pound;7.99