Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Over in my Consider the Source column I began exploring a question that relates to this blog as well: what is pleasure reading? We use that term all of the time – indeed I stumbled into the question when a recent and well-publicized study claimed that there is a steep decline in “pleasure reading” among teenagers. The CSM study echoes similar terminology that the NEA used several years ago to claim there was a national reading crisis. If we are making claims about changes in “pleasure reading” we must have a series of clear definitions in mind: what is “pleasure” reading, what is not “pleasure” reading – usually defined as reading for “school or work.” I’d love to have an intrepid graduate student research the history of these terms – who came up with them, what they originally were meant to signify, and how they are used today.
                In my SLJ column I suggested that one source might be Louise Rosenblatt’s division between “aesthetic” and “efferent” reading. That is, reading in which you give over to the text as against reading in which you pluck information from the text. The obvious problem with this formulation – or, at least, when “aesthetic” is transformed into “pleasure” and “efferent” becomes “school or work” -- is that you are mixing apples and oranges. “Pleasure” can either mean “pleasing” – enjoyable; or, something closer to “choice.” That is, either a reading experience, or, reading that you are not required to do – that you choose to do. But you may choose to do something not because you expect it to be enjoyable, but because it is useful to you. Does anyone read a diet book for pleasure (outside, perhaps, of recipes)? Does anyone read a manual that tells you how to set up some new equipment for enjoyment? No, the enjoyment comes once the equipment works.
Now let’s reverse the terms: you may be required to read something for school that you find yields pleasure. Indeed the premise of a Liberal Arts education is that the student will be introduced to what Mathew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said.” That is, the teacher, the school, opens the student’s mind, exposes him or her to marvelous ideas, poems, plays, theories, paintings, compositions, novels that the student would otherwise not know or appreciate. In other words, school vastly expands the potential pleasures of the student – by giving the student the tools to find, understand, make sense of, and be curious about the vast riches of human accomplishment. Indeed, the student may be so inspired that s/he goes on to pursue a profession linked to creating new works. Once in a profession – whether that be as a plumber, a soldier, a pilot, a doctor, a teacher, a scientist, an artist – there is little if any line between reading for pleasure and reading for work – because you have selected a kind of work that matters to you, that is rewarding, in which the act of working is, in itself, a creative satisfaction.
Notice the weave: we talked about reading that may not be pleasurable to do, but that the reader chooses; then reading a reader does not select, but which turns out to bring pleasure.
                Of course there are times where we work just to make a living – not because a job appeals to us. It must be possible to separate out work as punch clock requirement from work as apprenticeship to a rewarding profession, but once we carefully parse work reading we move further and further away from anything resembling school. I suggest that we eliminate the terms “or work” in future surveys. There are teenagers who work, and just about any task – from taking the Red Cross training in order to become a Baby Sitter to working in a restaurant chain to assisting in a lab, hospital, or office – requires some reading. But this work-related reading seems so different from school that it should be a category all its own.
                School: here is where the categories we use fail us. Yes, some part of school is a grind from which we seek relief in diversion, sports, arts, hobbies, friendship, games, reading, etc. But there is a whole middle band at school, which has been growing over the past twenty-years: time set aside for SSR, independent reading, battle of the books, summer reading, state book contests, teen reading groups. All of this reading is specifically designed to straddle “assigned” and “self-selected.” Either our surveys are not catching all of this school-directed pleasure reading, or the net effect of more independent reading at school is to diminish or cannibalize so-called “pleasure reading” outside of school. We have a category problem, a failing initiative, or both.
                One more twist: I am not convinced that using a textbook is reading at all. Or, at least, it is a very purposeful kind of reading totally different from, say, reading a history or math or science book because you are interested in the subject. Maybe we should ask about reading in a textbook assigned at school versus all other forms of reading, including non-textbooks assigned at school. Perhaps that would yield some kind of baseline distinction. Reading required to make a buck, separated from reading designed to help you find and rise in a satisfying career; reading in assigned textbooks, separated from reading in books authors have crafted to explore ideas, develop characters, craft plots.
                Could it be that this whole terminological muddle arises because textbooks have colonized school – so that reading for school really means reading a textbook? But now we have the Common Core, which is shifting us away from textbooks – while the questions asked in surveys have not caught up. I hope our next set of studies will begin by defining our terms. After that we can have the great pleasure of making sense.


  1. Pleasure reading is often associated synonymously with choice reading and fiction, for reasons that are still confusing to me. We all have multiple identities and different purposes for reading in and out of school, and we take different stances with everything we read. We can read the same text and switch back and forth between an efferent stance and an aesthetic stance, as I frequently do with literary nonfiction. I think people have turned Rosenblatt's transactional theory into a shorthand for reading fiction/poetry versus nonfiction, but she is the first to say that this is not the case. It's all about our purpose for reading and what we seek from the text, which is always context-dependent. There are so many contexts for which we might be reading in school, and so often reading is simply considered reading. But we read for different purposes in school and those purposes require different transactions with the text. Doug Buehl writes about obligation versus choice reads in Developing Readers in the Academic Disciplines. Even those two labels are complicated. I may choose to study history, and I'm taking a graduate course where reading is assigned. Yes, it's a choice that I'm studying history, but the book may still feel like an obligation if it's assigned by someone else and/or not the history I'm most interested in. But, it may also be a delight. It's an obligation, I have to read it for the course, but I enjoy it, and can read it from both an efferent stance and an aesthetic stance. Out of school, we read for pleasure, and we can read any genre that brings us pleasure, and there is pleasure in reading in the aesthetic stance AND the efferent stance. And it's all different for every single one of us.

    1. Yes, I agree. The problem is that we have these studies of reading which employ categories that seem self-evident and are anything but. As a result we get data that is simultaneously seemingly significant and at best muddy. We need much more careful exploration of what "reading" means in and outside of school before we try to measure it, or any changes that may be taking place.