For some people reading is still a matter of life and death. Many Kurdish Peshmergas fighters struggling against ISIL are going to night school to learn how to read. In warfare knowing how to read is really important. As Shkur Miro, a 33 year old fighter explained; 'when we go to the frontline or into a recaptured village there are posters warning us not to touch things that are harmful and I can't read them'.
Peshmergas fighters are taking time off to attend night school because they realise that being able to read can make an important difference to their lives. This is an attitude that is very different to the way that many Western school-children regard reading. As one important study of the problem of motivating American youngsters to read concluded; 'it seems increasingly clear that the chief impediments are not cognitive in nature', it is 'not that students cannot learn; it is that they do not wish to'. What this study and an others indicate is that though in the end most children become literate, they regard reading as not a big deal.
Hundreds of studies and reports have been devoted to confront the challenge of how to inspire children to take an interest in reading. Educators are continually discussing and debating how to motivate pupils to take reading seriously. Some point the finger at pedagogic approaches that stifle creativity; others blame the failure to expose children to the teaching of phonics. In recent decades the availability of powerful and exciting new digital technologies of communication have been held responsible for distracting potential readers from opening a book.
From my study of the history of reading I have concluded that how people engage with reading depends on the meaning that it has for them. Literacy comes into its own when what people read matters to them. If school pupils are switched off during their reading classes it maybe because what they are taught does not matter to them. And that is not necessarily the fault of the teacher but of the wider culture within which they are instructed in literacy.
Writing and reading are not simply techniques of communication, and reading is not purely a skill that allows individuals to decode a text. Readers gain meaning from their experience through engaging with the content, and how people read is influenced by the wider cultural attitudes towards literacy. The prevailing intellectual climate, and the significance that ideas and texts possess for communities, shapes such attitudes. The sacralisation of reading and the text by religions such as Judaism and Christianity was connected to the conviction that it provided an access to the Truth and to a greater understanding of God's purpose for humanity. The Reformation helped launch a veritable literacy campaign as thousands of hitherto non-literate believers sought to read the vernacular Bible. The rise in literacy rates was closely connected to the spread of the Reformation.
The eighteenth-century Enlightenment took ideas and education seriously and helped encouraged an environment where reading was highly valued. It was during this century that the idiom of 'love of reading' emerged and gained influence. Not everyone who learned how to read was interested in the finer points of philosophy, but in circumstances where reading was celebrated as a fundamental cultural accomplishment, it became a medium for gaining knowledge, intellectual and aesthetic pleasure, and self- improvement. Learning how to read did not pose a serious problem. As Jonathan Rose points out in The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, numerous working class people during the nineteenth century learned to read on their own because they believed that self-education was important. The energy and devotion of these autodidacts demonstrates that when it is seen to matter, people readily embrace the practice of reading.
Unfortunately the younger generations are told that reading is important because it is a 'must-have-skill'. No doubt it is an essential skills to possess. But the possession and even the valuation of this skill does not necessarily inspire people to find pleasure in reading. It is when reading is seen as important in its own right that it becomes a source of pleasure for people. What society requires is a humanist approach that regards reading as valuable in and of itself. Why? Because through reading we gain access to a new world and gain experiences that transforms the way we understand ourselves and others. The power of reading helps all of us in our everyday struggles no less than the Peshmerga fighters who learning to defeat ISIL on the battlefields of Northern Iraq.
Frank Furedi's Power of Reading: From Socrates To Twitter, published by Bloomsbury Press