‘We were never born to read’

The title of this entry is the first sentence in Chapter 1 of Maryanne Wolf’s book Proust and the Squid (2007). This is a very punchy line and I remember first hearing it in Philip Prowse’s presentation at IATEFL in 2009. Ironically enough my first encounter with the sentence was not through reading, but through listening.

Wolf’s traces back the development of reading throughout human evolution and analyses how our brains learnt how to read, identifying some of the factors that transformed us into reading animals. However, being able to read does not necessarily transforms an individual into a reader. The question that has really been at the back of my mind for quite a long time is ‘What makes us readers?’ What mysterious force drives a person to spend hours and hours over the pages of a book without any apparent reward and most of the time without any clear objective? What makes a person derive enjoyment from such a quite lonely and sedentary activity? What is perhaps even more interesting, why some people seem apparently immune to the ‘reading bug’ that infects some of us, compulsive readers? It’s a mystery!

Last term I asked my PhD EAP students how many non-academic books they had read in the last 12 months. Two of them answered 1 or 2 –  the other 16 had read none. Some of them had watched one or two of the Harry Potter films and had watched the Lord of the Rings but none had got near a printed version of either. When I ask my ELT trainee teachers the same question, the results are usually not very different and the reason for that is usually ‘lack of time” because, you know,  teachers are always ‘very busy people’. Point taken. However, if you really enjoy something you usually find a couple of minutes in your busy schedule to do it, whatever it is, don’t you? I strongly suspect that the reason for not having time to read for pleasure is that, for some people, reading is not exactly a pleasant activity. Why is it so is a question far too complex and broad but that certainly deserves investigation.

Wolf, M. (2007) Proust and The Squid. Cambridge: Icon