Saturday, February 23, 2013

Why the Book? A Second-hand Life

I just read my friend Gretchen's post about a children's book, Blue Chameleon. As usual, Gretchen is astute, and she makes me ponder things. Her post asks several questions. Why do children's book authors introduce inappropriate topics to children of a certain age, like loneliness to a 3 year old? It's a good post; go read it.

Gretchen also asks why children's books teach colors. She says this: "I'd prefer to teach colors with a book like The Color Kittens -- not that anyone is in dire need of a book to learn about this aspect of every single item in his environment."

My jaw dropped. What an obvious thing. Why do we use books to teach about things that are so ubiquitous? Can we not point to red things, repeat the word "red," and get our point across to the child? Can we teach counting and numbers this way as well? How many other practical, daily things and ideas do we lean on books for, which we could teach to our children directly? Can't we just show them what shoes and chairs and hairbrushes actually are, instead of showing them pictures in books, of real things that lie all around them? Well?
"1 Is One," a number book by Tudor

Books are inherently representative. Nothing on the page is real except the paper and the ink. Is that why reading is such an a difficult and essential skill? It's the skill we use to teach this convoluted, representational, roundabout practice. Learn your letters, which have no real meaning. They parallel sounds we make, but on the page they are silent. Put the letters together to make words, but those merely stand for real objects and concepts. Read lots of words to grasp ideas that you could just look up from your book and see.

Isn't that a lot of work? Why do we do it?

As an aside, I'll mention that learning to read music is much the same, only more laborious. The process of learning that the symbols on the page represent sounds made on a torturous instrument, and rhythms one must learn to feel -- it's a miracle anyone learns to read music well.

But what about my question? Is reading a skill we want children to acquire, so that we can then teach them? Learn to read, we say, so that you can learn everything else, which is written in books. That's changing, you know. Lately a distinct shift has occurred in education that says, Don't read about it. Do it. Touch it. See it. The assumption is that the book is really an obstacle, something that stands between the child and truly experiencing counting blocks or touching a fish or seeing a dinosaur bone or visiting the ocean. Whole educational programs are now founded on manipulatives, on movement and kinesthetics, travel, nature, experiencing the education.
Montessori classroom -- lots of fun, but not a book in sight

Books do stand between us and the world. Dickinson said a book is like a boat that can take you anywhere, with so little effort or cost. Is that a good thing? Wouldn't it be better to go see the world instead? Is a book just a second-rate option? What do you think? Perhaps books stand between us and the world to protect us. How preferable is it to read about dangerous places, dangerous people, even dangerous science projects, rather than discover then first-hand? Is it better for a 3 year old to read about loneliness in a book, so he'll be ready when it visits him personally? I don't know.

In this way, I think perhaps computers have much in common with books. Certainly we use them to experience our world second-hand, more than we ever did with our reading.  I can take a college course, visit Ireland, hear a world-class pianist play Rachmaninoff, chat with a friend from across the world, and see my old childhood home in Virginia, without leaving my laptop. Even a book doesn't do that.

Why do we humans have such a penchant for symbol? For little letters to stand for an object? For many tiny black words to tell a life? If you find an answer, let me know.


  1. What jumps out at me in reading this is the photo of the Montessori school. Curious about the absence of books. I know of a woman online who runs a Waldorf school in her home. I know it's different than the Montessori, but I've been intrigued by her teaching methods. Very tactile and maybe a bit overhanded in treating children like they're made of glass.

    Not on your topic, but the Montessori photo brought it to mind.

    Blame it on brain ain't workin' right! ;)

  2. Because The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The WORD is holy and beautiful and moves us. He is so good, so very good.
    Come on over and see the boys and the passport. Photos of the book to follow! Yay!

  3. Melissa, thanks for bringing that up. I did not intend to pick on the Montessori folks; I've heard good things about their schools. I think in my generation (I'm about 50), books were idolized. They were seen as the found of wisdom, a friend to the friendless, the best way of experiencing the world. I believe now we're experiencing a bit of a backlash, at least in education. There's a strong push against making kids read too much b/c it's tough on the 'non-readers.'

    Pom, you are exactly right. That's an area I wanted to talk about, but didn't want the post to go on too long. I wonder if our desire to WRITE (and thus to read) is born from our being made in God's image. I've always considered the Book as God's choosing a communication avenue that we'd understand. But what if something about writing -- the mind's desire to make a representation of concepts in a physical form -- is from God originally? That we have writing b/c he first chose writing? A though.

  4. (That should have read "the fount of wisdom.)

    Here's another question: Do we read b/c someone wrote something, or do we write b/c there are readers? That may sound silly, but I think it's important. It's really important to me as a writer. Do I write merely b/c there are readers out there who need their daily dose of words? Am I simply a satisfier of their need for reading? Or do I actually have something to SAY, regardless of whether anyone reads it?

    I do think writers fall into one camp or the other. I'm definitely the second camp. I want to write, I need to write, for myself, regardless of the audience. I think. That's a tough one.

  5. Wow, that's a lot to think about. I guess the first thing I thought of was The Word and how important it is in helping us to know God, which would be very difficult without the written word.

    I tend to really over-analyze things like this to the point that I talk myself out of writing. (Does the world need another book?) I also get sort of materialistic. (I could SELL this book and make money, which would help my family.)

    I see the point about using a book to teach something you could teach from "real life". It is sort of funny that we do that. But I think books have been a good way to experience places and lifestyles that you could never experience otherwise because of lack of means to travel all over the world. Computers and TV fill this role as well, so I can see that books might become less and less popular for this use.

    Picture books I see more as art and I usually pick them because of the illustrations. I just love the beauty!

    Interesting thoughts, M.K.

  6. Like Melissa, the Montessori classroom with no books is a sad, sorrowful sight!
    Pom is correct...take away the Word and the people are left with nothing, literally!


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