Jan 4, 2008

Benefits of reading (fiction)

["Because, mate, If I'd ever learnt to read I would never have ended up in jail." -- former prisoner]

Love of reading opens up a world of possibilities

Tanya Plibersek
SMH, December 12, 2007

The novel Northanger Abbey, one of Jane Austen's less read works, has a gentle dig at the contorted plotlines and melodramatic expression of the gothic novels popular in the author's day.

But still Austen offers a defence of the novel, having her hero Henry Tilney say, "the person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid".

Today's students need Jane Austen (and other authors who have stood the test of time) as much as ever. Good fiction is not a waste of time.

True story: a young man wondered why his colleague - a huge, rough-looking gardener who sported the DIY teardrop facial tattoos common on prisoners - read children's books at lunch time. His lips would move slowly as he read and re-read the picture books. The young man finally worked up the courage to ask why. "Because, mate," came the reply, "If I'd ever learnt to read I would never have ended up in jail."

He was learning the books so he could read them more fluently to his own children, hoping to spark in them an interest in reading he had never had.

It is a tragedy that 2½ million Australians can't read and another 2.7 million can barely read. Getting children who don't like reading to read comic books or reviews of computer games or car manuals - it doesn't matter what - is important. But we shouldn't lower our expectations of children.

Studying English should be more than just learning to communicate. It should be learning to love language. Of course, students need the basic skills of literacy - spelling, punctuation, grammar, a broad vocabulary - but complex and creative thinking relies on a playfulness with language that is bred by immersion in all its possibilities.

Many people eschew fiction, thinking that reading time should be spent learning facts. Good fiction helps us understand human experience. It is the food of empathy. It can make other cultures, other historical periods real for us. It is empathy that drives social progress: if we can imagine the hardships of a person's life we are prepared to work to relieve their burden.

As well as helping us understand the world, fiction helps us understand ourselves. Jane Austen's heroines are appealing (except, perhaps, the insipid Fanny Price) but they are mostly flawed. Emma Woodhouse thinks too highly of her own understanding; Elizabeth Bennet jumps to false conclusions; Anne Elliot has to learn proper balance between respecting the wishes of her family and being true to herself. No one can help reading these novels without asking, "Am I guilty of the same failing?"

In a world where teenagers are exposed to consumerism, early sexualisation, self-destructive behaviour and the prevailing message that if they want something they should have it (and happiness lies in getting everything you want), diving into a world that confronts them with moral dilemmas can open up parts of their minds that are otherwise not challenged. How many young people first thought about apartheid in South Africa after reading Alan Paton's great novels?

We want young Australians exposed to the best the English language has to offer, including the best colloquial expressions of it, because we want to develop the part of the brain that feeds creativity and complexity, that understands subtlety and wit, that allows higher communication and an ability to see things from the perspective of another.

Several years ago the Singapore Government realised that the education system of Singapore, while excellent, did not foster creativity in students. Since 2004 the Singapore Government has adopted a policy of "teach less, learn more", which aims for "less dependence on rote learning, repetitive tests and a 'one size fits all' type of instruction, and more on experiential discovery, engaged learning, differentiated teaching, the learning of life-long skills, and the building of character …"

One of the reasons cited for this change was that students needed to be better innovators for the good of the economy. Well, there is that, but reading good literature happens to be delightful, too.

Tanya Plibersek is a Federal Government minister and the federal member for Sydney.

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