The Reading We Don’t Do in School

I have previously had occasion to mention on this blog my reading Graham Greene’s brief but valuable essay about “our literary friends” — by which Greene meant those writers who may not “do us credit” in the eyes of the world but whom we truly enjoyed reading when we were young.

Considering the eternal debate about whether or not literacy is declining, it seems to me that the fact that fewer young people have such friends is probably part of the problem. We talk a great deal about how the schools may be failing in their educational mission (in part because their role is the more obvious, in part because teacher-bashing and school-bashing serves the agenda of the “privatize everything” crowd), but overlook how the schools never carried the whole burden. If people on average read better in the past than they do now, this was at least partly because they did more free reading, and likely got more than is appreciated out of material that, to the eyes of the skeptical middlebrow, looked unpromising.

Certainly looking back I think reading such fiction helped me in that way. My reading, admittedly, was not wholly unvaried, but as you may recall John le Carré was way too “literary” for me. (Indeed, even Ian Fleming was too literary for me in those days.) Rather what I went for were the jet-setting shoot ’em up spy novels, the military techno-thrillers, the big summertime blockbusters on paper generally. I inclined, in particular, to Robert Ludlum, Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy (and Larry Bond, and Dale Brown, and Eric Van Lustbader, etcetera, etcetera).

Were the books those authors produced “great literature?” No, not by the standards of “the ancients,” or the Medievals, or Franco-Jamesian realism, or Zolaesque naturalism, or Modernism or postmodernism or any other “high cultural” standard with which I am familiar. Nevertheless, taking up those books I was not just practicing my reading comprehension skills, but doing so on material that still had me coping with long, information-heavy, sometimes complexly and intricately structured and detailed narratives (lots of subplots, lots of narrative threads, lots of viewpoint characters). Material that, because of its subject matter, made demands on, and sometimes expanded, my vocabulary and my general knowledge. Material that, while not doing so in the more artistically striking ways, or for the sake of exploring important or understanding of lived life, demanded close attention, and patience, and a readiness to puzzle things out here and there (if only for the sake of following what was going on in some action sequence).

I might add that as one who not only enjoyed reading such fiction but was already aspiring to write it I was more attentive to the books than most. Where the conventionally “dutiful” student of creative writing spends their time trying to write “beautiful” sentences, I went so far as to outline many of these books in detail, trying to work out how one development led to the next, how one scene led to the next; how one fleshed out a narrative so that what might have been boiled down into a summary of a few pages was a whole book; how they distinguished between what was worth conveying and not worth conveying to the reader, and how best it might be conveyed so that the reader would be able to follow along, and preferably, enthusiastic about doing so.

Soon enough my interests as reader and writer changed, and I spent less time with those friends than I did before. But looking back I can see that it was a training nonetheless, a broader one than even that to which I was aspiring as a would-be novelist.

Originally published at