Read at Your Own Risk

Has Dr. Seuss’ legacy hobbled America’s literacy crusade?

Reading: Kids do not like it. Not one bit

“Are we losing a generation of readers?” asks the recent National Endowment for the Arts’ report called Reading at Risk, which laments a two-decade decline in reading—particularly “literary” reading (of fiction, poetry, and plays) and especially among young adults. It’s not a new question, as various people have pointed out. And over the last two decades, America has been waging a very public campaign to ensure that the answer to it is no. Ever since the 1983 report A Nation at Risk (issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education) sparked neo-Sputnik alarm about illiterate young Americans, reading promotion has resurfaced as a national priority. Over the last decade (during which the pace of reading’s decline has accelerated, according to the NEA’s figures), book boosterism has generated yet more publicity—from efforts like the “Read Across America” program to Oprah’s Book Club. You might be forgiven for asking whether the civic-minded crusade to promote “active and engaged literacy,” in the NEA report’s phrase, might be part of the problem.

That’s not a new question, either. Check in with your average middle- or high-school kid this summer, and you’ll find him avoiding his “recommended” reading—and not because he hates books; he feels bossed, and bridles. He surely hasn’t read Virginia Woolf’s “How Should One Read a Book?” but she’s on his side in balking at literary prodders and pokers. In the essay, she warns that “to admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries.”

What Woolf couldn’t have anticipated was a very furry authority—wearing a weird red-and-white-striped cap instead of a gown—barging into the library: the Cat in the Hat. The agent of an ingenious, infectious new approach to promoting American literacy, he materialized on the eve of Sputnik. No one could keep him out, and he now reigns as a reading-movement mascot. (“Read Across America” culminates on Dr. Seuss’ birthday.) But his book-boosting legacy may be less liberating than we think. When you can point the finger at televisions, and now computers, as the obvious hijackers of the reading habit, why focus on a favorite book? Because the arrival of the cat marked the moment when the traditional line between primer-reading and pleasure-reading began fading rapidly—and along with it a crucial prerequisite (as well as product) of being a real reader: a sense of privacy. One thing the old-fashioned didactic regimen granted children was the thrilling feeling that their imaginative business with books was their own.

The catalyst of a surge of I-Can-Read and other kids’ books, Dr. Seuss’ work was hailed as the antidote to the banal drivel that many in mid-20th-century America feared was sapping the nation’s vigor and intellectual rigor—not least the “horrible, stupid, emasculated, pointless, tasteless little readers” that Rudolf Flesch derided in Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955). Forget “the stuff and guff about Dick and Jane or Alice and Jerry visiting the farm and having birthday parties and seeing animals in the zoo and going through dozens and dozens of totally unexciting middle-class, middle-income, middle-I.Q. children’s activities that offer opportunities for reading ‘Look, look’ or ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘Come, come’ or ‘See the funny, funny animal’,” Flesch urged. In 1957, Dr. Seuss introduced an animal who was truly bizarre. The cat knew how to blur work and games, how to teach phonics while having “lots of good fun that is funny.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love The Cat in the Hat, and to judge by the data in the NEA report, we baby boomers fed on freshly minted Dr. Seuss have sustained an interest in “literary” reading better than most. In fact, at the three reading benchmarks the report surveys—1982, 1992, and 2002—it’s the bulge of the baby boom cohort that keeps scoring best. (In 1982, 62 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds were literary readers, ahead of all the others; by 1992, the top score, 58.9 percent, went to 35- to 44-year-olds, and in 2002 the 45- to 55-year-old group boasted the highest percentage, 51.6 percent.) Even so, now that I’m a parent, I can’t help feeling that his influence has been mixed.

At the risk of placing too big a burden on the cat (though he’s the guy who can hold up “TWO books,” a censorious fish, and much more), I’d trace a new vision of what these days you might call “positive” literacy back to Dr. Seuss and his success. That vision was outlined in The Cat inthe Hat itself. The story enshrines the midcentury popularization of the (Freudian) idea that kids’ fantasy lives require studious nurturing—a dose of zany fun, brought to a tidy close that will not unnerve their parents, or impede the children’s own steady progress. They can’t be left alone, feeling bored and bereft, their imaginations allowed to roam unchecked on “cold, cold wet days.” Right from the start, they need a model/mentor/mediator to goad and guide them; they need a moralizer too, making sure the kids don’t start feeling too guilty at all the antics, assuring them, “Have no fear of this mess.”

We Seuss graduates have embraced the bouncy, bossy approach to kids’ reading with a didactic zeal our beloved doctor (a genius at balancing sheer nonsense and no-nonsense) might well disapprove. We even go out and buy books with titles like How To Get Your Child To Love Books, and hurry our growing readers on from picture books to “problem” books, which deal with social and emotional dilemmas relevant to “young adults.” The instrumental spirit echoes in the earnest public rhetoric about how “print culture affords irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex communication and insights possible,” as the NEA’s chairman puts it in Reading at Risk. You can hear it, too, in the avowals that “readers play a more active and involved role in their communities.”

But don’t such pressures and promises miss the real importance of the kind of “literary” reading that the NEA report sets most store by? Truly absorbing, addictive reading of imaginative writing is intensely private and, in a social sense, escapist. “Serious readers aren’t reading for instruction,” as an anthropologist at work studying American literary habits told novelist Jonathan Franzen. Devoted readers are hoping for a chance to discover, in the narrated lives of other selves, what it’s like to be an individual confronting the unpredictable. Maybe it’s time to stop spreading fears about “reading at risk,” and try generating more excitement about reading at your own risk. How? I wish I could say you could look it up, but you can’t.