Reading for betterment

About 20 years ago, I read Tolstoy’s uber-novel, War and Peace. The perfect set of conditions all came together: I’d just been sent a copy of the book by a friend who was keen that I read it, I was in my third year of an English literature degree and fairly convinced of the benefits of reading improving books, and I was ill and was living in a world where home internet access wasn’t really a thing – at least not for students – and so I had little to distract me.

I devoured it in about 2 weeks. Although long and complex, it’s not a difficult book to read. There are long passage where Tolstoy expounds his theories of history and philosophy but for those who want to crack on with the story, these can be skipped. I remember loving it. Trouble is, I could remember very little else. A few weeks ago I got into one of those conversations where favourite books were discussed. I proposed War and Peace as possibly the best novel I had read and when I was asked what it was about, I realised, very much to my shame, that I didn’t really know. Of course I knew it was set against the backdrop of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and involved the interconnecting lives and loves of various Russian aristocrats, but little else had stuck. I very much wanted to reread it in order to discover what it was I’d admired so much about it, but who’s got time to read a 1000 page novel? These days I seem to spend all the time I have for reading on academic papers and non-fiction. Reluctantly, I accepted that watching the TV adaptation was probably the closest I’d come.

Then, I came across Andy Miller on the Twitter via this tweet:

That, I thought, is a very cool blurb indeed. I followed Andy and saw from his bio that he’d written a book, The Year of Reading Dangerously: How 50 Great Books Saved My Life*, which very much appealed. With crushing inevitably, one of Miller’s 50 life-saving books is War and Peace. He waxes lyrical about the power and beauty of the book and claims that it contains all other books – once you’ve read War and Peace you’ll never need to read anything else. All this made me feel rather envious. Maybe I’d just been too callow when I’d first read it? Maybe I hadn’t been paying attention? Anyway, what really helped was a five-point plan for reading the book which Miller attributes to his wife, Tina:

  1. Read fifty pages per day.
  2. Utilise the list of principal characters at the front.
  3. Pay attention! Soon you’ll discover that Tolstoy is doing the heavy lifting for you.
  4. Don’t fret if you’re not enjoying the Peace, there will be a bit of War along shortly.
  5. When you get to the end of it, read it again.

That first piece of advice, read fifty pages a day, I’ve found transformative. Reading fifty pages takes time and effort, but is still manageable. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be more or fewer pages , but the idea of picking a number gives us something to measure ourselves against; we’ve either done it or we haven’t. I don’t think it matters too much if we don’t manage our target – we certainly shouldn’t let a setback put us off from trying again tomorrow – but breaking a longer read into manageable chunks is surprisingly satisfying. It reminded me of the folk-wisdom response to the ever troubling question, How do you eat an elephant? Answer, one spoonful at a time? How do you find the time to read War and Peace? Answer, read fifty pages a day. I’m currently six days in to my rereading and have already covered 300 pages. I have an unread four volume set of Remembrance of Things Past on my bookshelf which suddenly seems achievable. I might even finally get round to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire!

Reading for pleasure?

The point is, reading books – at least for me – is about more than simply reading for pleasure. Reading for pleasure has an unreliably hedonistic ring to it.Don’t misunderstand, I’ve nothing against the simply joy that can come from reading, but why should our aim for students be that they simply read what they find immediately gratifying? I’ve written before that asking how to get students to read for pleasure is the wrong question. If anyone works out how to get children to enjoy doing things they don’t want to do, they’ll be exceedingly rich. But fortunately, that approach rather misses the point.

I wrote here and here about the idea that the idea of persuading children to love reading might be a well-intentioned mistake. That said, if reading is nothing more than an act devoid of enjoyment then what is it? The way we often talk about reading in education is a pale, utilitarian vision of what can be an immersive, almost addictive activity. If all we value – or all we talk about valuing – are the perceived benefits of reading, does it matter what is read? If students’ experience of reading is focussed on paragraphs scissored from their original context and pasted onto worksheets they may well learn to analyse literature, but will they learn to love it? Will they learn to appreciate that as Frank Furedi puts it, “reading – especially serious reading – is itself a culturally beneficial activity”?

If serious reading is a culturally beneficial activity, what might constitute serious reading? In his book, Miller calls his list of fifty books, the ‘List of Betterment‘. We can all quibble about his choices – there are some titles on his list I’m not in the least bit interested in reading – but the idea that we could all put together such a list and read through it fifty pages at a time is enticing. What sort of society might we create if all children read fifty pages of War and Peace every day? This might seem an overly ambitious aim, but as I understand it, Russian children all read it before the end of secondary school, so it’s not as if the task is impossible. Clearly other things would have to give, but might this be a worthwhile endeavour? And what else? The Odyssey? On the Origin of Species? If we were to see reading as being about betterment, if we believe that some books make us better, is it not worth working hard to get children to have read them?

9 Responses to Reading for betterment

  1. Rufus says:

    This is something that I have thought about a lot over the years.

    Will Durant suggests 100 books to read, at an hour a day for 4 years, which would give you a better education than a Liberal Arts undergrad degree.

    This is somewhat outdated, but I’ve seen modern equivalents that are interesting.

    We had a great assembly at school today which discussed happiness, and whether the happiness that some of us get from playing video games is equivalent to the happiness we get from listening to Verdi. Perhaps one is ‘harder’ to elicit pleasure from than the other. Often, I am conflicted as to whether to get the immediate gratification from reading a thriller or to look for the more ‘difficult’ pleasure of reading say George Eliot.

    Two of my favourite pieces of literature are Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, and Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, neither of which I would have read had I not studied English Lit A-level.

    My question would be, how can I get us much out of my reading as I did during my A-levels?

  2. Victor Hugo does us all a favour in ‘the Glums’ – it’s written in 365 short chapters. One a day. And, the same as Tolstoy, some of those chapters are his philosophy and other worthy pronouncements which can, easily, be skipped.

    Then compare, is Hugo the writer of the best novel of the 19th century or Tolstoy or, indeed, someone else?

  3. I recently finished reading the 6 volumes of Churchill’s The Second World War (took me two years, off-and-on); long-read, but worth it:

    History: Relentless and Ruthless via @chemistrypoet

    • David says:

      I’ve been thinking on the same lines lately about Reading For Pleasure. I wonder if English teachers can learn something from PE teachers here. No one says you are playing football or sprinting or swimming for pleasure. There’s an acceptance that struggling and pushing yourself for greater rewards is why you do it. Maybe we need to see reading War and Peace as being like running a marathon, Finnegan’s Wake is one of those Iron Men competitions etc.

  4. […] ‘Reading for betterment’ by David Didau (@DavidDidau) […]

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