This year, Tolkien Week coincides with Banned Books Week in the U.S.. GHG member Katy Colby’s penultimate post in our series reminds us to celebrate the right to read! Tell us in comments: do you know young people who love to read? What about adults who pass on their favorite fiction to the next generation? We would love to hear from you!
When I volunteered to write this post for Tolkien Week, I had a number of topics bouncing through my disorganized brain. A study of Tolkien vs. George R.R. Martin, How to read Tolkien as if it was a primary source document, How to enjoy fantasy when your rational mind will not turn off, and a study of Hobbit every-day life in Middle Earth were the top contenders. As I thumbed my ideas and struggled to settle on a single topic while I monitored a group of students laboring through half an hour of silent reading time, my dilemma vanished like a snow drift in front of a Balrog. In its place stood a sad reality; for too many people, reading is an ugly chore.
This is something most of us have a hard time imagining. People who don’t read for pleasure? What do they talk about with their friends? Do they dream? Do they wear shoes and clothes the way we do? How do they live? Yet, there is a large and growing section of our society that reads only when necessary, and then does as little as possible to finish the job.
When any job moves from the “fun” section of our lives into the “chore” section, we tend not to do it often. Think about the chores you know must be done, but you would really prefer to drink Lysol. We all have them, and we all avoid them as much as we can. As a result, we don’t get better at them and our lack of skill means that we do not get good results. The cycle feeds on itself until the hated task is avoided at all costs. This is a monster problem when we are talking about something as necessary for life in the modern world as reading.
I was almost one of these poor creatures. When I started school, I remember how much I disliked reading. I read well, but I loathed the material I was given. The books my teachers thought appropriate were only interesting enough to prop a window, and I was too short to open one of those. Dick, Jane, Spot, Puff, the several saints deemed good role models, nothing sparked my senses. I would rather wash dishes than read, and that is saying something powerful.
Then, rescue came in the form of an old book about a little fellow who adventures with some Dwarves. God bless Grandda, who gave me his first copy of The Hobbit and put up with my endless questions. Here were characters that caught my imagination and ran like wild horses, over mountains and rivers, through caves and forests, to a shining wonderful world where anything was possible. I was addicted, and I never wanted to break the habit. Yes, I found role models in my reading; not St. Anne or St. Margaret, but Eowyn, Aragorn, Maedhros, Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, and Haleth. These characters were true to themselves. They never gave up, never sold out for an easy exit, and kept their focus until the end of their tasks or the end of their lives, whichever came first. Valuable models, I think, and models which many of our younger generation could use today.
Unfortunately, the reading in schools now is no better than it was nearly 50 years ago. Thanks to a lack of classroom time and parent time after school, fiction reading is discouraged in favor of “factual, learning-based” reading even during free time. Early grades have book shelves filled with books about animals, planes, volcanoes, geography, and different cultures. All good topics, but not as likely to hold the imagination as cowboys, dragons, and pirates. By the time students have access to the worlds of The Hobbit and Harry Potter, many of them have already decided that reading is boring and they are not good at it anyway. It’s too late.
The Grey Havens YA proves that some of our young people have escaped this trap, and that’s a good thing. Their love of fiction inspires their imagination, and grows talent in visual art, literary art, and science. Their generation will compose symphonies and colonize Mars, if only they can drag along the dead weight of non-readers.
What can be done to lessen this ballast? We must start younger, by second grade at the latest. Since schools have neither money nor time to devote to a love of reading, I believe the effort must come from volunteer work and donated books. These books must be good enough to inspire the love of reading, light the imagination, and withstand all the drag that would pull the little children away from the magical place and back to the actual-factual world.
This is the monster we face. Hopefully, we have a noble archer with a black arrow inherited from his fathers, and a brave little fellow with furry feet to spy out the weak spot.
Images courtesy of New Line Cinema