In almost every school I have had the privilege to teach, reading is viewed as a staple of a student’s academic diet. Once during a reading period in a school in New York, I heard a history teacher reminding the students that they need to be readers because all successful people read. Audible groans sounded from various members of the class. In that same instance, a few girls took their books and moved to a corner of the classroom where beanbags had been laid out, announcing, “leave me alone. I want to be successful too.”
Most people witnessing this might read the situation as a feeble attempt on the part of the teacher to persuade teenagers to engage with a book because through reading, one engages with the language and thus gains a better command of it. This is definitely the case. By engaging with a language repeatedly, either through reading or writing, one gains a better command of the language by grasping its nuance. However, more than merely learning the language on a fundamental level, reading is essential for honing the mind and sharpening our sensitivity to the world and its realities. Language is what we have to negotiate meaning, and the world is bound by words, whose meaning morphs and changes with its context. Thus, reading is a skill that must be honed because the act itself is a rehearsal of life.
Reading as a Transactional Activity
In the most basic sense of the word, reading is defined as making meaning from print. This brings to mind an almost mechanical process, with the reader understanding the significance of the words on the page, and comprehension of the text occurs when meaning is constructed. Reading however, is more than merely recognising words on a page. Reading is a transaction between reader and text because it is a “two-way process involving the reader and the text at a particular time under particular circumstances.” This idea of a transaction was borrowed from prominent education philosopher John Dewey, who argues that meaning from reading emerges through the contribution that reader makes with the text.
The reading of literature, fiction or nonfiction, is an essential transaction of the mind. I would argue that such transactions need to occur often, perhaps on a daily basis. In reading, the words on a page, arranged in a particular pattern, are designed to stir up elements of memory to activate areas of consciousness. In reading, a reader inevitably brings past experiences to the forefront of their minds as they negotiate the meaning surfacing from the text, revising its importance and significance. Viewed from this perspective, the reading of a text is viewed as an experience and an exploration. It can be said then, that an individual who reads, lives a thousand lives. Emily Dickinson, in “There is no Frigate like a Book”, acknowledges that literature functions as a metaphorical vessel for one to explore the world, and it is a journey that even “the poorest take / Without oppress of toll -”.
Reading as an Exploration
A reader’s transactional experience with a text necessarily takes on an explorative element. This is especially true for fictional texts where the reader takes pleasure in the reading through their engagement with the words on the page, its arrangement and sound of the words. Distinguished educator and researcher Louise Rosenblatt terms the experience of reading as an exploration because the reader automatically engages their mind by drawing on their “reservoir of past experience with people and the world,” their “past inner linkage of words and images” surfaced from the pages as they negotiate meaning while drawing on their “past encounters with spoken or written texts.” The text serves as a gateway, and the transactional nature of reading leads readers an exploration as they “participate in the story” as they “identify with the characters” by sharing in their “conflicts and their feelings”.
At the end of the day, the reading of literature is an exploration of the mind, values and culture of the world because as with any art, it mimics the world around us, and places the reader in a subjunctive state whereby for a temporary moment, they are suspended between this world and that which the author has created. In this state, the reader experiences a moment of respite from the grind of life and is given the opportunity to try out a different life and in the process develop a sense of empathy and understanding of the world around them because literature exist primarily as a social commentary and at a fundamental level provides comfort for the disturbed and disturb those who reside in comfort.
The reading of literature is an essential part of life and living. Without literature, our experience of the world would be monolithic at best. Young minds might not gain the exposure they so desperately need. Reading is a rehearsal to life and its context; an essential activity that needs to take place on a daily basis.
Rosenblatt, L. M. (1982, September). The literary transaction: Evocation and response. Theory Into Practice, 21(4), 268–277. https://doi.org/10.1080/00405848209543018