This is coming a bit late. Nonetheless, onward.
Even though I fashion myself a writer that really isn’t true. I am now and have been for many years a reader first. I read pretty much constantly. Unfortunately, I have something of a short attention span so I can fly through many articles – academic, journalistic, and otherwise – but attacking a book can be daunting. I had no problem reading enough of a book to get the gist for grad school purposes, but to really dig into a full-length monograph has never really excited me.
I started reading a little late. I came first to the sports page and the backs of baseball cards. There I practiced and eventually became quite good at reading. Starting off in those formats cast the die of my style of reading. I read for the new, that which tickles the brain as having a different angle, new insight, and just the freshness of the next game. Going over plowed ground sends me running. This, I acknowledge, is not an especially laudable cast of mind.
I think one of the best discriptions of the life of the historian was passed along by a favorite European history professor in grad school, when asked to describe what historians do, he said roughly they read and then they keep reading and read so more and then eventually they might begin to write. Good history takes the reading that comes first seriously. One of the weaknesses of history not grounded in the text is that it quickly becomes clear that the historian hasn’t done enough reading. Now, some historians fall prey to opposite temptation, they can’t stop reading and thus never create something for the public.
This question of reading seems to a real challenge for educators. It seems so obvious that if you teach a person to read and read well that it opens up nearly all areas of knowledge. If you can’t read well no amount of instruction will overcome that fundamental lack. The goal is match the student with the sort of reading that sparks the imagination and draws them further in – this rarely happens in school, sadly.
Reading isn’t just about words though. One of the most interesting small schools of historical work looks at how people read the ‘city.’ The pedestrian city (automobile cities are different) were filled with spaces dominated by words competing for attention. How the people came to make sense of that panoply of words scattered around have provided rich source material to reflect on all sorts of issues about changes in the economy, politics, and culture – at least until the rise of radio and later visual mediums that placed the viewer in a more passive relationship.
Off to consider more the place of the school in the narrative of urban crisis of the late postwar era.