Where have all the readers gone?

These two books will be joined by a third in Fall 2016...all of them in search of that rare and elusive Reader!

These two books will be joined by a third in Fall 2016…all of them in search of that rare and elusive creature, The Reader!

Count the books in your house – the books in plain sight, not the ones buried in boxes. Then count the number of books you bought.

Finally, count the number of books you actually read last year – books, not magazines, websites or anything else.

If you are like most people, these numbers will graph a steady slide toward personal illiteracy.

I’m old enough to keep buying interesting books, despite a pile that continues to grow. Someday I will find the time to read them.

As an author, I write books I want other people to read, so I also feel compelled to support colleagues and the publishing industry.

As a university and college teacher, however, I am deeply troubled by the inability of my students to read quickly. Given all the money and effort the school system spends on literacy, books should not be foreign objects. Nor should reading be a difficult activity.

My students are assigned about ¼ of the reading I had as an undergraduate. Their protests about how much there is and how long it takes to read it grow every year. Match this to fewer and shorter essays than I used to write – and epically bad essay examinations – and their downward graph toward illiteracy mirrors the downward slide in the number of books sold these days.

It’s not that e-books are taking over, either. People hardly buy books anymore. Even fewer read them. My e-book sales are almost non-existent and I am told this is a common complaint. Canada’s one large book retailing chain stocks as much other stuff as it does books and displays it much more prominently.

Simply put, we are no longer a nation of readers – at least not of more than 1000 words in a row. Anything longer is skipped over like those Internet terms of service agreements, jumping to the agree button at the end.

Academics of course have coined a term for this – apparently we now live in a post-literate society. We communicate in other ways than words. Images (worth a thousand words, remember?) flash across our screens and lure our eyes away from the solidity of a book. We now have the intellectual attention span of squirrels – and it shows.

Yet the irony is palpable. All around the world, education (especially for girls and women) is seen as the key to sustainable development and a better future. Parents sacrifice themselves and their future to pay the school fees for children who often are forced to live at a distance to attend.

Literacy – reading books and writing – are at the centre of this passion for education. Yet here at home our literacy indicators continue to slide. Manitoba sits close to the bottom of the national average and fingers are thus happily pointed at our teachers and our education system.

I suggest the fingers are pointed in the wrong direction. Children learn what they live with more than what they are taught. The same parents who spent hours reading aloud to toddlers are never seen book in hand by their teenagers. If there are bookshelves, they hold other things or dusty artifacts, not a library of books waiting to be read.

When there is dinner table conversation, it is fuelled by Facebook or current events, not by the book someone is reading. We know how to read (and to write), but like physical muscles grown flabby with lack of use, our literary muscles are out of shape.

At school (college or university) and at work, this has a direct effect on performance. Given the limited time for an assignment, any student who can finish the reading quickly has more time left to actually do the work that is graded. A plodding reader is also often a slow writer, so the penalty is multiplied.

Vocabulary is similarly affected. Even the words that are learned by hearing them are misspelled in hilarious ways. (In one recent Facebook example, “gender parity” was spelled “gender parody” instead!) Spell check doesn’t help if brain check is disabled by lack of practice.

At work, employees can’t process what is written as quickly as they should – and write garble that is misunderstood by the people who have to read it. All this wastes time and creates inefficiencies, frustrations and mistakes.

So read, read as though your life depended on it. Read in front of the children. Read on the bus. Read on your work break. Read in the evening instead of surfing the waves of Internet foam.

It will hurt at first, just like any good workout should. But it will make all the difference in the end!

Peter Denton’s sixth book, Live Close to Home, will be ignored in bookstores everywhere in Fall 2016. This column first appeared in the Globe and Mail.

A Century of Poppies…and Larks

The National War Memorial (Ottawa), May 2015 Photo: Peter Denton

The National War Memorial (Ottawa), May 2015
Photo: Peter Denton

“The larks, still bravely singing, fly/Scarce heard amid the guns below”

The 100th anniversary this year in May of Lt. Col John McCrae’s famous poem, “In Flanders Fields,” has been marked by many. For all of its lines, the one that sticks in my head is not about torches or poppies, but about the larks, still bravely singing, that fly over the battlefield.

They are evidence of the tenacity and resilience of life, the continuity with the earth and the rhythms of nature, precisely at the time when the destructive powers of humanity are at their most devastating.

The guns pulverized the landscape, churning the soil so that the lime underneath made it inhospitable to other plants, while encouraging the poppies to flourish. Incoming or outgoing, the noise of artillery shattered thoughts as easily as eardrums. One withstood the barrage, survived the noise, waited for the space that followed the crump and crash of shells, knowing that the sounds of silence meant survival – for now.

It also could signal the start of an attack, as the barrage lifted, so one needed to rush out to the firestep to be sure, peering through the fog, the mist, the dusk or dawn, perhaps to see light glinting from the bayonets of a charging enemy.

In the midst of such muddy chaos, it was impossible to look beyond the moment, to think beyond the instinct for survival. Yet in the letters written home from the trenches, the sketches, the poems, some still did — preserving their own identity and humanity in the midst of an experience implacable about erasing both.

Where 1914 included the initial euphoria of those off to the grand adventure that would bring them home for Christmas, 1915 settled into the mud of Flanders. There was bitter and inconclusive fighting, Ypres, poison gas, the disaster at Gallipoli and the realization that no one would be going anywhere soon, except to the cemeteries that were already filled with more casualties than Europe had seen since the Napoleonic wars.

In that context, McCrae looked around at the poppies and then up to the sky, seeing and hearing the larks.

Remembrance Day ceremonies always move me. Where I attend, pomp and polish are usually missing, the printed program as stumbled with mistakes as the ceremony — and the delivery of words and messages as faltering as the veterans who march past.

But if the service is dusted off each year, along with the old blazers and racks of medals, much younger ones now join those old faces. Canada was at war in Afghanistan longer than in any other time in its history – those veterans walk among us, every day. They are at soccer practice and swimming lessons, waiting for ballet to wrap up or the instruments to be put away at the end of rehearsal. Their children have grown up worried whether about daddy or mummy will come home from the war. Their families continue to deal with the stresses back home of the effects of war on their own identity and humanity.

I don’t know how many of my Royal Military College students have been there and back, just that too many have. None were among the 158 fatalities, for which I am thankful, but I am sure that others have come home with physical and mental scars to mark their service to Canada and to the people of Afghanistan and elsewhere.

So however garbled the local ceremony, however awkward the procession, my thoughts always rise above the event, like the larks in McCrae’s poem. Remembering what I have never experienced, imagining places I have never been, seeing people whom I have never met, it matters that I am there. It’s what keeping faith means.

At the end of the service, I always pin my poppy to the green artificial turf at the base of the white cross that serves as the portable memorial at the civic ceremony in Winnipeg. I remember when it first started to happen – how it took organizers by surprise – but it became more moving than the dignitaries laying their plastic wreathes. Ordinary people, tears in their eyes from thoughts and memories unshared, old and young, mark their own place in that remembrance.

By coincidence, I was in Ottawa for the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and placed my poppy on it at the end of that ceremony, becoming part of a tradition that I expect will continue regardless of what else happens on the Hill.

It’s more than a sign of respect. It is a reminder that we need to live each day committed to the spirit of sacrifice, out of concern for others — caring about principles that will lead to a better world for everyone and not just for ourselves.

That kind of act, in the midst of whatever battles we are fighting, whatever the sound of the guns in our own lives, whatever dread comes upon us in the silence, is how we rise above the din of daily conflict that can otherwise overwhelm us.

Like the larks, still bravely singing, we are reminded of who we are, whose we are and where we are headed, because there is much more to life than what we find in Flanders’ muddy fields.

Peter Denton, Ph.D., is Adjunct Associate Professor of History at the Royal Military College of Canada, whose students he has been privileged to teach since 2003.

Symbols of Change in Paris

Major Groups and Regional Representatives meeting with Amina J. Mohammed (Nigeria), the Secretary-General's Special Adviser on Post-2015 Development Planning (UNEA1, Nairobi, June 26, 2014)

Major Groups and Regional Representatives meeting with Amina J. Mohammed (Nigeria), the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Post-2015 Development Planning (UNEA1, Nairobi, June 26, 2014)

Canada does not need to take new climate commitments to Paris – just a new attitude.

The substance can (and must) come later. For now, symbols are more important – and the Maple Leaf too long has been absent.

United Nations Environment Programme Executive Director Achim Steiner, in an op-ed in the Toronto Star (November 3), called on our new government to reclaim its leadership role in environmental diplomacy, including within UNEP, which now has responsibility for the United Nations environment file.

As the only representative of an accredited Canadian civil society organization (the United Church of Canada) at UNEP’s last two global meetings, I believe that needs to include the rest of us, too.

As a Canadian observer, I was warmly welcomed to both the UNEP’s 27th Governing Council and the first United Nations Environment Assembly – and then sharply challenged by delegates who asked “What is wrong with Canada these days?”

At UNEP HQ in Nairobi, we simply weren’t present in the numbers and with the policies that were required. On the government side, the small delegation cobbled together in 2013 was forced by security concerns to stay home in 2014, instead relaying advice through the night by cellphone to the few consular staff based there. They did their best, with integrity and without complaining, but it was not the role we should have played.

On the civil society side, our absence was even more obvious.

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