|Reading Paddington Helps Out on a car trip|
Then in May 2011, N.'s independent reading suddenly took off. He no longer said he was "looking at books" in the morning but that he was "reading books" and would we please stop interrupting him. I discovered while reading aloud The BFG that he had read ahead several chapters. One morning he read 3 chapters of Henry Huggins. Another morning he read a chapter of Russell and Elisa; another he read a chapter of The Indian in the Cupboard. I was elated! We bought three new Paddington books in England and in the last few days of our trip he was devouring Paddington Here and Now (listed reading level: grades 3-5) on the train, subway, and airplane. Now he reads at least a chapter of some book or other every morning: Pooh, Thomas the Train, Pippi Longstocking, Rufus M., The Tough Winter, The Time Garden. Most of these are books I've read aloud to him at least once before, but now that I know he's reading this challenging material, I am less obsessed with whether he's reading unfamiliar books (although I am still perplexed by his randomly reading single chapters in the middle of unfamiliar books). I recognize that dipping in to these favorite books all by himself is an incredibly rich experience for him.
N.'s mode of reading -- "dipping in," I'm calling it, randomly reading a chapter in a new book or looking for a favorite chapter somewhere in a book, reading it, and then repeating the process with a different book -- surprises and intrigues me. My model of "proper" reading is linear; you start at the beginning and read through to the end! In coming to terms with the difference between my model and N.'s current mode of reading, I remembered that one of my favorite eighteenth-century writers, the very learned Samuel Johnson, excoriated pedants who demanded linear reading.
In James Boswell's Life of Johnson (published in 1791) he describes Johnson's reaction to an instructor's advice that his pupil "read to the end of whatever books he should begin:"
'This is surely strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep to them for life. A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?' (Life of Johnson p. 1304)On another occasion a friend asked Johnson his opinion of a recent and much admired book. "I have looked into it" said Johnson. "What," said his friend, "Have you not read it through?" According to Boswell, "Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to own his cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, 'No, Sir, do you read books through?'" (Life of Johnson p. 520).
Johnson also believed strongly that both children and adults should read what captures their attention. "A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good" (Life of Johnson p. 303-4). "He said, that for general improvement, a man should read whatever his immediate inclination prompts him to, though to be sure, if a man has a science to learn, he must regularly and resolutely advance. He added, 'what we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read'" (Life of Johnson p. 747). Johnson makes the important distinction that when one is learning a particular discipline (a "science" of any sort, including literature) one must read methodically through the major works in the field, but he describes so poignantly the wasted mental effort of trying to focus the mind on required reading. He goes so far as to say that you must seize the precious moment when your attention is captured, no matter what: "He said, 'if a man begins to read in the middle of a book, and feels an inclination to go on, let him not quit it, to go to the beginning. He may, perhaps, not feel again the inclination'" (p. 747). Johnson, like other eighteenth-century writers on education (Locke, Maria Edgeworth), believed strongly in the pedagogical efficacy of the chance encounter. There is something about coming upon an idea or book by chance that makes us especially receptive to learning.
For children (or rather, boys, the subject of Johnson and Boswell's conversations about reading and education; although Johnson appreciated and encouraged learned women writers, he does not as far as I know comment on girls' education), Johnson advocates free-range reading:
I am always for getting a boy forward in his learning; for that is a sure good. I would let him at first read any English book which happens to engage his attention; because you have done a great deal when you have brought him to have entertainment from a book. He'll get better books afterwards. (Life of Johnson p. 1020).Again he acknowledges that eventually one must read deeply to be a true scholar, but Johnson maintains that dipping in to books can have particular benefits for the child learner: 'Snatches of reading (said he,) will not make a Bentley or a Clarke. They are, however, in a certain degree advantageous. I would put a child into a library (where no unfit books are) and let him read at his choice. A child should not be discouraged from reading anything that he takes a liking to, from a notion that it is above his reach. If that be the case, the child will soon find it out and desist; if not, he of course gains from the instruction; which is so much the more likely to come, from the inclination with which he takes up the study.' (Life p. 1080).
I love it that Johnson imagines a child encountering something too difficult as he browses a library, and that for Johnson this can only be good for him. In fact, to bring this all back to N., I suspect that difficulty is at least in part behind N.'s dipping in to books, that he wants to read silently at our read-aloud level but can't yet sustain it beyond a chapter or two. Perhaps as he gains confidence and facility he will read a chapter book through. Or perhaps he'll remain like Samuel Johnson, dipping in to books as the inclination strikes him. N. could do worse than follow Johnson!