I. Pleasure reading makes good readers
Almost all good readers spent a lot of time reading for pleasure as kids. That time is chipped away at every year; two of my students told me today that after elementary school their pleasure reading time has diminished every year. They both mentioned AP US History as something that took up a lot of their time this year. One of them said that he still tried to read for pleasure, but it was like "One page of Henry James, and then one page of AP Achiever."
I have a few reactions to what my students said. One is to think, again, that if our students' time is like Africa, and we teachers are the European imperial powers, fighting to grab as much as possible for ourselves, then at my school APUSH plays the role of England, and we English teachers end up, ironically, something like Italy. Of course, that analogy would imply that it might have been better to let the kids alone to go off and read Henry James, just as it would have been better for the world if Europe hadn't gone on its colonizing binge...
Another reaction is to think that the English department should have an AP course, so that we can colonize more of our students' time--and give Henry James a province of his own. But I don't love segregation by ability...
Another reaction is to think that this kid's advanced reading ability (James is difficult for most high school students) is due hardly at all to his in-school literacy activities, and almost entirely to his literate family and his endless hours of pleasure reading in elementary school. This thought makes me feel good about spending a lot of energy and class time encouraging pleasure reading, especially in my non-Honors level classes.
As I've said before, you can become an excellent reader and thinker without ever getting explicit instruction in English class, solely by "sitting around reading books and drinking tea." So why not include more of that, of sitting around reading books and drinking tea, in our high school English classes?
II. But New Research seems to show that pleasure reading doesn't get your brain going...
Reason to eschew pleasure reading in favor of close analysis of short texts is offered by new research that has been getting a fair amount of media attention. The research, conducted by a Michigan State English professor, apparently shows that when readers switch from skimming a text, "as they might do in a bookstore," to reading it closely and analytically, they start using much more of their brain, including areas of the brain that aren't usually associated with reading or analysis, but instead are associated with movement or thought. This study, while still only "preliminary," is being hailed as a justification for literary analysis, and, interestingly, a reason to privilege thinking "about" a book rather than just reading it for pleasure. Unfortunately, the study hasn't been published yet, so all we have are confusing stories about it in the popular press, and it's not clear what the larger implications are.
The MRI study apparently showed a "global increase in blood flow" to the brain during close reading. During "pleasure" reading, the blood flow increased as well, but in different areas. If the study's results hold, Natalie Philips, the literature professor who is the lead investigator, has said, then "it's not only what we read – but thinking rigorously about it that's of value."
If Philips is right, then those parts of my classes that involves basically sitting around reading and drinking tea may be less helpful than the parts of my classes that have my students doing close reading, analysis and metacognition. But based on (a close reading of) the articles about her research, I'm not so sure.
III. Is "pleasure reading" or "skimming" the same as deep immersion reading?
There are a few problems with Philips's conclusion that "thinking rigorously about" what you read is more important than just reading it for pleasure. The most important problem is that it's not clear what is meant by "pleasure" reading. Philips uses the phrases "pleasure reading" and close reading" to distinguish the two kinds of reading that her subjects were switching between while in the MRI machine, but the subjects are also described as being instructed to "leisurely skim a passage as they would in a bookstore." Now, this does not sound like "pleasure reading" to me. When I "skim" something, I don't do it in a "leisurely" way, and I don't find reading in bookstores particularly pleasurable. When I read for pleasure, I am much, much more deeply involved. I enter what Nancie Atwell calls the "reading zone". This deep immersion reading is very far from skimming in a bookstore.
Oddly, Natalie Philips, the professor running the study, also describes this deep immersion reading. She says, "I am someone who can actually become so absorbed in a novel that I
really think the house could possibly burn down around me and I wouldn't
notice." Unfortunately, it's not at all clear whether this kind of deep immersion reading was occurring in her study. Skimming or browsing in a bookstore is clearly not deep immersion reading--and neither, it would seem, is reading a text closely "as a scholar might read a text while conducting a literary analysis."
So... I think we need more data. I would love to see the same study done with a more rigorous attempt to define different types of reading. I suspect that you would see dramatically different patterns of brain activity--and I wouldn't be surprised if "pleasure reading" of the deep immersion kind provoked just as much activity, across just as wide a range of brain areas, as close reading of the scholarly kind.