Today I attended a lecture at UBC given by Dr Mikko Lehtonen, Professor of Media Culture, University of Tampere, Finland, and Visiting Professor, The Centre for Culture, Identity and Education, UBC. I am keenly interested in young people and reading research, particularly as it intersects with new technologies. [As well, I recalled that Tampere is a town that Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley refer to in their book, The Fourth Way; here the town's school administrators are concerned with the well-being and success of all the children of Tampere, not just the ones who attend their own schools. What implications does this have for BC schools where some children are privileged over others, most often by fund-raising parents do to benefit their own children, and where some children are living and trying to learn in conditions of extreme poverty?]
Lehtonen was fed up with "silly ideas about reading because of technology." Old or "residual" ideas about reading, ideas that tie it to notions of citizenship and economic or national well-being, to the future of society, and so on, are conjoined in a dominant refrain that there is a crisis in reading. This "media panic" is not corroborated by book sales, suggests Lehtonen. Rarely is reading in this discourse tied to pleasure; it is about creating a responsible, far-sighted, self-governing citizenry. These old ideas are both dominant and powerful.
I wasn't surprised with his findings that young Finns are readers. His
study, entitled "New Reading Communities, New Ways of Reading" (2011), looked
at the so-called Google Generation, ages 16 to 35. 50% subscribed to newspapers; 42%, to periodicals. 40% owned more than 50 books. 80% read books for entertainment; two-thirds of these preferred fiction. Only 8% read e-books; only 17% blog. What Lehtonen suggests is that there is no crisis of the book. There is, however, a crisis of print capitalism or the customary ways of producing and distributing books and of educational systems based on print. There are book stores closing; education is re-thinking itself; the printed word retains its status as the norm for other media, perhaps incorrectly.
What, asks Lehtonen in a series of ciritical and related questions, are the contexts that change how we understand literacy? What happens to reading when a culture is reframed as a tool for economic profit, when books are global commodities? How does reading both reinforce and cross boundaries? How do we break away from contained national, political, and cultural units that tend to the homogeneous, to the English "translations," or to the homogenization of the global book market through adaptations, for example? How do we re-infuse the cognitive interpretations of reading with the affective dimension, typically neglected? There is, he suggests, no cognition without affect.
The questions continued: Who has the right to define what counts as all-round education and knowledge? What is the status of knowledge, of determining what is worth knowing? Who or what gets to be "known about"? Who are entitled to produce knowldge? What forms of knowing pass as proper knowledge? How is knowledge being used as a vehicle for creating other values, and how is it "exteriorized" to be sold or consumed?
And here's my question, with thanks to Dr Lehtonen for helping me find the words: Whose interests are being served by perpetuating the myth that kids aren't reading and aren't reading books any more?
Here, in Vancouver schools, our school libraries circulated 1.6 million items last year, that is, in 10 months. This entitles us to see ourselves as the 11th largest circulating library system in BC, ahead of many local public library systems. Our students average 30 books per year, this per capita figure being slightly higher than nearby school districts. Consider that our highest-reading high schools average 7 books per student per year (bigger books and busier kids with more activities and more homework) and you can see that the bulk of this circulation accrues to our elementary school libraries. On hearing the recurring message that "kids aren't reading any more" at a recent national reading summit here in Vancouver, I took the mike to point out that no one was asking teacher-librarians. Our statistics would indicate that schools with strong school library programs, good books, and qualified staffing provide strong evidence that young British Columbians are reading and reading with enthusiasm. A representative from a local publishing company at the summit immediately sought me out to commend me for correcting the myth, confirming that their sales figures for children's and young adult books also contradict the message that kids aren't reading any more. My six teen readers who attended to represent reading youth in Canada and who spoke to the conference attendees about the importance of reading to them were eloquent and articulate on the importance of reading in their lives. You can see, quite simply, we teacher-librarians who work in school districts that place value on the school library and reading can't see any evidence that "kids aren't reading any more."