What my students taught me about reading: old books hold new insights for the digital generation



Sophie Elvis/Unsplash

Kate Flaherty, Australian National University

Every year about 150 students enrol in the introductory English literature course at the Australian National University, which I teach. The course includes works by Shakespeare, Austen, Woolf and Dickens.

I know what these books did for me as a student 20 years ago, but times have changed. I am curious to discover what reading these old books does for young people today.

Last year, 2019, saw the first cohort of students who were born in or beyond 2000 – the so-called digital generation. These students have grown up in a world where you can read a book without holding the physical object.




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I decided to introduce the option of a bibliomemoir – an increasingly popular form of creative non-fiction – into their final year assignment. This would allow me to tease out the particular connections students were making between literature and their own lives.

My first year students have grown up in a world where you can read a book without holding the physical object.
Dexter Fernandes

The idea for a bibliomemoir was sparked in a workshop run by our then writer-in-residence, celebrated Australian teen novelist and author of Puberty Blues, Dr Gabrielle Carey.

Carey described bibliomemoir as a piece of writing that shows literary criticism is “best written as a personal tale of the encounter between a reader and a writer”.

Written with flair and precision the students’ bibliomemoirs revealed the formative effects of reading on their lives. Many of their insights related directly to challenges of growing up in the digital age.

They wrote about responding to distraction and cultivating compassion, connection, concentration and resilience.

Why a bibliomemoir?

A bibliomemoir might be an account of how one book or author has shaped a person’s life. Or it might be the memoir of a life structured by reading books. In Outside of a Dog, for instance, Rick Gekoski tells his life story through 25 books that have influenced him, including authors from Dr Seuss to Sigmund Freud.

Gekoski pointed out in an interview that bibliomemoir reveals the formative effects of reading. I saw immediately that I could adapt bibliomemoir to help me understand how my students saw books as shaping their lives.




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So, for the final essay of the introductory English course, Carey and I designed a new essay question. It invited students to write a brief bibliomemoir based on one of the novels in the course. Like a traditional essay this would allow me to evaluate their skills of written expression, argument and technical analysis of literary language.

Students who write the bibliomemoir can still be assessed on technical aspects of their writing style.
Unsplash/Christin Hume

Unlike a traditional essay, it would allow me to see inside their individual reading experience. I would be able to understand how these books were influencing my students’ view of the world and their understanding of themselves.

Here’s what the students wrote

One student shared how reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway prompted a conversation with his flatmate about experiences of digital distraction and strategies for concentration:

Soon we came to the subject of Big Ben, which Woolf uses as a motif through the book. [My friend] said that the way Big Ben interrupted the characters’ thoughts reminded her of how a notification from your phone can interrupt your stream of thought.

I had also noticed the motif of Big Ben, however I appreciated it as an element of structure and pacing in a book that had no chapters, in fact I had sometimes structured my reading sessions around the ringing of Big Ben in the book.

Another student, reading of the mental torment experienced by the returned soldier Septimus in Mrs Dalloway, gained a new perspective on people who don’t seem to fit in. Reflecting on her initially judgemental perception of a dishevelled man boarding her bus the student asked: “was he so different from Septimus? Wise and lost?”.

She then explained she gained a new and unexpected perspective on life:

[Woolf] gave me glasses I never knew I needed – lenses smeared with multiple fingerprints that enhanced rather than hindered the view.

She concluded that

to be a reader is to suspend rigid views, to consider and honour the perspectives of the characters one meets.

A third student reflected on the challenges of reading itself, and on the rewards of persisting when structure and characterisation are unfamiliar. The student said she set out wanting to be an “inspired reader” but confessed to feeling “frustrated” by Woolf’s “merciless indifference” to her characters in Mrs Dalloway.

In noting this frustration, the student had registered the novel’s lack of clear protagonist or plotline. The novel is difficult to read because, while we do see individual characters trying to interpret their lives as coherent stories, Woolf refuses to impose an artificial grand narrative.

After sticking with it, however, the student recognised the novel’s achievement:

There lies the beauty of it: the ordinary day captured in time and words as a novel.

This student’s bibliomemoir was a story of the dividends paid by sustained concentration and a flexible mindset.

One student wrote about how the ringing of Big Ben in Mrs Dalloway was similar to a phone alert.
Nick Fewings/Unsplash

A fourth student used the bibliomemoir to analyse how Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey showed her the value of observing people closely, and has equipped her with resilience as a student facing the challenge of dyslexia:

I could not work out how to do the exact things my teachers wanted me to do. What I could do was learn to understand my teachers. By learning to watch them, like Austen watched people, and learning to understand them as people, I began to understand how to jump through their hoops.

While she couldn’t quantify the competencies reading books had given her, the student said she just knew books had formed who she was:

I cannot list the strategies that I employ when reading and writing […] I give all the credit to reading literature, to books like Northanger Abbey and writers like Jane Austen and so volunteer myself as an example of how reading literature is valuable in our era.

These examples revealed some of the many reasons new readers, even of the digital age, return to old books and old ways of reading them. The readers expressed an urgency for connection with narratives more complex than a news feed.




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They recognised that truthful self-reflection can be prompted by sustained engagement with fiction. They proved that connection with others, compassion and resilience are nurtured through a deepened understanding of story in the study of literature.

I can only conclude that for this group of readers, taking a book into their hands is a very deliberate act of identification with the bigger, shared story of reading.The Conversation

Kate Flaherty, Senior Lecturer (English and Drama) ANU, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Things Found in Old Books


The link below is to an article that looks at strange things found in old books.

For more visit:
https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/616989/amazing-things-found-old-books

Why do teachers make us read old stories?



Teachers often assign older books.
vovidzha/Shutterstock.com

Elisabeth Gruner, University of Richmond

Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to CuriousKidsUS@theconversation.com.


Why do teachers make us read old stories? Nathan, 12, Chicago, Illinois


There are probably as many reasons to read old stories as there are teachers.

Old stories are sometimes strange. They display beliefs, values and ways of life that the reader may not recognize.

As an English professor, I believe that there is value in reading stories from decades or even centuries ago.

Teachers have their students read old stories to connect with the past and to learn about the present. They also have their students read old stories because they build students’ brains, help them develop empathy and are true, strange, delightful or fun.

Connecting with the past and present

William Shakespeare wrote plays in the 1600s that are still read today.
Martin Droeshout/Yale University, CC BY

In Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” for example, teenagers speak a language that’s almost completely unfamiliar to modern readers. They fight duels. They get married. So that might seem to be really different from today.

And yet, Romeo and Juliet fall in love and make their parents mad, very much like many teens today. Ultimately, they commit suicide, something that far too many teens do today. So Shakespeare’s play may be more relevant than it first seems.

Additionally, many modern stories are based on older stories. To name only one, Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” has turned up in so many novels since its original publication in 1848 that there are entire articles and book chapters about its influence and importance.

For example, I found references to “Jane Eyre” lurking in “The Princess Diaries,” the “Twilight” series and a variety of other novels. So reading the old story can enrich the experience of the new.

Building brain and empathy

Reading specialist Maryanne Wolf writes about the “special vocabulary in books that doesn’t appear in spoken language” in “Proust and the Squid.” This vocabulary – often more complex in older books – is a big part of what helps build brains.

The sentence structure of older books can also make them difficult. Consider the opening of almost any fairy tale: “Once upon a time, in a very far-off country, there lived …”

None of us would actually speak like that, but older stories put the words in a different order, which makes the brain work harder. That kind of exercise builds brain capacity.

Stories also make us feel. Indeed, they teach us empathy. Readers get scared when they realize Harry Potter is in danger, excited when he learns to fly and happy, relieved or delighted when Harry and his friends defeat Voldemort.

Older stories, then, can provide a rich depth of feeling, by exposing readers to a broad range of experiences. Stories featuring characters from a diverse range of backgrounds or set in unfamiliar places can have a similar effect.

Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ has been retold many times.
John Tenniel/Wikimedia Commons

Reading can be fun

Old stories are sometimes just so weird that you can’t help but enjoy them. Or I can’t, anyway.

In Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” there’s a character whose last name is “Pumblechook.” Can you say it without smiling?

In Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” a cat disappears bit by bit, eventually leaving only its smile hanging in the air. Again, new stories are also lots of fun, but the fun in the older stories may turn up in those new stories.

For example, that cat returns in many newer tales that aren’t even related to Alice in Wonderland, so knowing the cat’s history can make reading that new story more pleasurable.

I won’t deny that some old stories contain offensive language or reflect attitudes that we may not want to embrace. But even those stories can teach readers to think critically.

Not every old story is good, but when your teacher asks you to read one, consider the possibility that you might build your brain, grow your feelings or have some fun. It’s worth a try, at least.


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Elisabeth Gruner, Associate Professor of English, University of Richmond

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.