Banned books, manifestos and a better way of reading

May 18, 2024
Stacks of books lying on table

At last weekend’s Victorian Writers Festival three authors – two of them also bookshop owners and one of them an author and enthusiastic supporter of bookshops – talked about books and the threat to reading.

Ann Patchett and her husband own Parnassus Books in Nashville Tennessee. Lauren Groff, another novelist and her husband Clay Kallman, own a Tampa Bay Florida bookshop, The Lynx, which proudly stocks all the books Florida’s Governor Ron De Santis and Florida schools and libraries have banned.

Groff told the Tampa Bay Times: “We did this because of the book bans. We want to fight back against the chill of authoritarianism that is creeping across Florida.”

First Nations author, Tony Birch, who can regularly be seen around Readings in Carlton and has a full shop window devoted to his books in the shop as they come out completed the trio.

Patchett and Groff shared their thoughts on one issue of concern to all US shops – guns. Both said they could put a sign in the window saying guns were not welcome here but that such a sign would probably provoke someone with an AK47 to burst in.

Groff is obviously on a bit of a winner with banned books because De Santis, while running for the Republican Presidential nomination touched every right-wing Republican button he could think of – abortion, book bans, wokeness, immigration.

Now he is no longer running for President – and the Florida legislature is trying to effectively ban all abortions – he is thinking more about voters in the gubernatorial election.

According to The New Republic (16/2) he told a press conference that accusations that he has enabled Florida book bans were ‘a fraud’ and ‘a big hoax’. Instead, he blamed activists from both the left and right for hijacking the process solely to create a media narrative.

Most recently he has even leapt to the defence of a book – The Diary of Anne Frank – after Florida schools banned it. Florida voting demographics may have had more to do with that than principle, however. He has also proposed legislating to stop ‘frivolous objections’ and even fine unsuccessful book objections.

Four European academics have also developed a manifesto – the Ljubljana Reading Manifesto – directed to governments and educators about the importance of what they term ‘Higher-Level Reading’.

The authors are Andre Schuller-Zwierlien from Regensburg University; Ann Mangen of Stavanger University: Miha Kovac of Ljubljana University and Adriaan van de Weel of Leiden University – places also infamous for the damage to their libraries and universities at times from centuries of war and religious intolerance.

The Manifesto states: “Societies are facing fundamental transformation as digital technologies are changing the ways we live, interact, study and read.”

It proposed that to address these problems “Higher-level reading is our most powerful tool for analytical and critical thinking. It exercises metacognition and cognitive patience, expands our conceptual capacities, trains cognitive empathy and perspective-taking – social skills which are indispensable for informed citizens in a democratic society.”

“Despite the demands of our highly developed world places on reading the reality is that many people today struggle to acquire even basic reading skills and higher-level reading skills and habits are declining,” they say.

They point out that a quarter of the American population doesn’t read books; a third of the German adult population reads in a book less than once a month; a third of students say they don’t read for leisure and 49% say they only read if they have to.

In good news for Donald Trump more than one-fifth of US adults “fall into the illiterate/functionally illiterate category.”

The Manifesto also cautions us about digital reading saying: “The digital realm may foster more reading than ever in history, but it also offers many temptations to read in a superficial and scattered manner – and even not to read at all.”

The Manifesto concludes: “Reading is pivotal to human culture. It is not a peripheral skill to be delegated to education departments and primary schools. The practice of reading is a deeply transformative form of culture, shaping the way individuals think and interact, and correspondingly, the way society is organised.”

It is easy to forget that up until half-way through the 20th century military recruiters in western countries often found recruits were not functionally literate or illiterate. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have problems today.

A 2024 Grattan Institute report – The Reading Guarantee: How to give every child the best chance of success – addresses the Australian dimensions of the problem.

The report says about one in three Australian school students are not mastering the skills they need.

“Students from poor families, from regional and rural areas, and Indigenous students tend to face bigger barriers to reading success. But about one in four students from well-off families struggle too.”

Grattan proposes a 10 year ‘Reading Guarantee’ strategy for Australia’s government, Catholic and Independent school sector leaders: It involves: committing to ensuring at least 90% of Australian students learn to read proficiently at schools; schools and teachers should have practical guidelines on the best way to teach reading; schools should have well-sequenced, knowledge-rich curriculum materials and effective assessment tools; schools should be required to do universal screening of reading skills and help struggling students to catch up; ensure teachers are properly equipped to teach according to the evidence through training and by creating specialist literacy roles; they should improve the system monitoring and accountability by mandating a nationally consistent Year 1 Phonics Screening Check for all students.

Grattan cites two case studies – Churchill Primary School in regional Victoria and Parafield Gardens High School in suburban Adelaide- which have both overhauled their approach to teaching reading and helping struggling students to catch up – with stunning success.

The approach required significant investment in screening and training of staff, and a re-organisation of the school’s timetable. But the payoffs have been remarkable – students who receive catch-up support have shown big improvements and are more engaged in school.

But if some people can take on the dangers of shooters and book banners Australia’s politicians ought to be able to demonstrate some courage too. Perhaps a starting point for them might not be on literacy and numeracy but – fixing the scandalous imbalance in funding support for private schools as opposed to government ones.

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