Monday, 6 December 2010


This fascinating article is contributed by BeWrite Books author Steve Attridge, a well-known, TV, theatre and cinema scriptwriter in the UK. His debut novel is 'Bottom of the List'. See our bookstore by clicking on the open book icon at the top right of this post or any major online store. This is a lengthy article of 1,500 words, folks, but well worth the reading.

Consolidating Differences, and the Death of Reading
Dr Steve Attridge

I recently published a novel in which a shy retiring man is forced to make a stand against corporate tyranny and encroaching philistinism. What facilitates his stand is the slow and shimmering support he receives from literary figures he has imaginatively lived with for thirty years: Molly Bloom, Hamlet, Nietzsche and Ulysses all appear in his hour of need. The point being made in a darkly comic turn of events is that his life in books has furnished him with an inner world of diverse characters, ideas and possibilities for living. Without these he is lost.

The debate about reading books versus watching moving images on a screen is pointless. We live inescapably in a world of moving images and, at best, this can be instructive and entertaining. The question of the value of reading is a separate imperative. When our ancestors invented alphabets 5000 years ago they triggered a revolution in human life. Not just that reading and writing became the foundations of civilizations, but in ways still little understood, they changed the structure of the human brain. This changing, evolving, complex organism is now on the endangered species list.

Reading is the most powerfully acquired cognitive skill. We were not born to read, so the brain has to literally change and rearrange its constituent parts. It physically grows as reading skills are acquired and new texts are mastered. MRI scans demonstrate that in reading and encountering new word formations and associations the brain grows intricate reading circuits, new neuronal pathways and connections.

Professor Phil Davis at Liverpool University underwent tests to see exactly what was happening inside his brain when reading. In particular, as he was exposed to some of Shakespeare’s more densely written lines that coined new word associations, such as ‘A father and a gracious man ... have you madded’ in King Lear, and ‘This last old man ... Love me above the measure of a father, Nay, godded me, indeed’ in Coriolanus. 

The word ‘madded’ compresses an adjective and a verb and ‘godded’ a verb and a noun, and experiencing these words created higher electrical activity in the brain. This Shakespearean linguistic technique, known as functional shift, causes a sudden peak in brain activity and forces the brain to work backwards in order to fully understand what Shakespeare says.

The neuroimaging data obtained shows that this surprise effect leaves the processing of meaning unaltered, the reader (or listener) understands the message equally well.

Twenty participants were monitored using an electroencephalogram (EEG) at Professor Guillaume Thierry of Bangor University’s School of Psychology as they read selected lines from Shakespeare’s plays. The findings were published in the journal Neuroimage. The brain is literally growing, just as the orienteering part of London cabbies brains, as they acquire ‘the knowledge’ (the memorising of London streets over a two year period), becomes bigger and more sophisticated.

These experiments show that Shakespeare has created a gymnasium for the brain, in which there is a distinct, measurable, functional shift. The analogy with the body is obvious – just as muscles enlarge and become stronger so can the brain. It is surprised into activity by the dynamic engagement with language. Levels of attention are raised. New possibilities present themselves. We can move more adventurously from concrete apprehension to conceptual and abstract thought. The recording and reading of knowledge and ideas means we find out where we came from and who we are with greater understanding. Ironically the very technology which is allowing us to understand the process of neural change in the brain is also responsible for the recreational apparatus that is replacing reading.

Popular culture itself understands the significance of reading. In Kubrick’s '2001: A Space Odyssey', the following exchange takes place between the main protagonist, Dave, and the ship’s computer, HAL:

Dave Bowman: Hello, HAL. Do you read me, HAL?
HAL: Affirmative, Dave. I read you.
Dave Bowman: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
HAL: I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

It is the word ‘read’ which intensifies this pivotal dramatic scene, the first chilling proof that HAL is not the benign servant of the ship and its crew, but a psychotic manipulator determined to eliminate anyone who gets in his way. The word ‘read’ here allows for a whole dramatic subtext to come into play – HAL has literally been reading Dave’s lips, so he knows the plot against him. He also understands Dave in a comprehensive way – the man, the mission, the motive – he has studied him and can now use that knowledge against him and to ensure his own survival. Polite words belie Machiavellian intent. You only have to substitute other words - ‘acknowledge’ or ‘understand’ - to see how potent the word ‘read’ is in this scene. It acknowledges that to read is a special activity, a vortex of high attention and comprehension, putting the pieces of a puzzle together to form new realities.

It is this intensification of experience which is under threat. Ironically it is in the sphere of education that some of the more alarming results of an ‘unreading’ culture are apparent. 

Cardinal Newman was insistent that the primary purpose of a University is intellectual and pedagogical, not moral or religious: ‘The view taken of a University in these Discourses is the following – that it is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is, on the one hand, intelectual, not moral. 

Tony Blair’s attention-seeking slogan, ‘Education, education, education’ and a moral belief (it was always a ‘moral belief’, a tenet of faith, not reason or argument) that just about everyone should go to University, has driven divisions deeper in the sphere of education, and highlighted the problem of fundamental illiteracy. As Nietzsche said, ‘a casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.’ Blair’s gesturing towards a democratisation of higher education was, of course, part of a cynical politics of headline catching superficiality. Changing examination standards, fiddling with entry requirements, simply drove divisions, intellectual, academic and pedagogical, deeper than ever. The gap between haves and have nots was never so manifest.

The older universities simply raised their entry requirements to ensure they got the cream. The rest could compete for what was left. Students had already been converted into consumers, and bums on seats became the order of the day. The two cultures are just that and have little in common. The older universities mostly still have systems of limited contact, academic staff having six or seven contact hours per week, while the “new” universities have a system more in common with FE Colleges, up to 18 or 20 contact hours per week, with almost open entry as long as fees are paid.

Those they teach highlight an alarming problem. Many current undergraduates in UK universities have severe literary problems. Many are called dyslexic. ‘Dyslexia’ comes from the Greek, meaning ‘difficulty with words or language.’ It is assumed that this condition is biological, yet the skyward trajectory of its increase suggests otherwise.

‘Dyslexia’ confers an ambiguous status. On the one hand, the sufferer has enormous problems, yet the label creates a sense of distinction, a ‘special need.’ Dyslexic students avoid reading, which nullifies the educative process they have entered. Reading and learning go hand in hand. One must learn to read in order to be able to read to learn. A poor reader will usually also be a poor learner. A student who cannot read properly is not a student. In many institutions a yellow sticker on a student essay means that grammar and spelling cannot be assessed, even if the essay is indecipherable, because the student is dyslexic. Often, they are not dyslexic, but illiterate. They simply haven’t been taught to read. 

Jan Strydom, a doctor in education, reacts strongly to the popular notion that dyslexia is a learning disability caused by a biological deficit. ‘I believe there is no physical, genetic or biological reason why they have this problem. The cause of dyslexia is that the foundational skills of reading and spelling have not been automated. Learning is a stratified process, in which one skill needs to be properly mastered before other subsequent skills can be learned,’ he says. Basic skills like attentiveness, visual discrimination, precise scrutiny and memorizing, skills of association, visual memory and logical thinking form the foundation of good reading, says Dr Strydom. ‘All these skills are employed constantly while a person is reading, but a good reader is unaware of these events because they have been automated.’

These fundamental skills must be taught to children from infancy. If a child has not mastered these basics he or she will have reading and writing problems as a result. The increase in dyslexia worldwide is caused by our changing life circumstances, says Dr Strydom. ‘The conditions in which children grow up today are drastically different to what they were 50, 40, or even 30 years ago, and certain everyday experiences that are vital to the correct interpretation of the written word have been removed from their lives. It was, for example, a tradition that parents drilled their children on the ability to distinguish left from right. Today, few parents are aware that knowing left from right is an important foundational skill of reading.’

The loss of reading is arguably the single most debilitating feature of modern culture and means that building blocks which can create futures are absent. We may be entering a timeless present of indecipherable texting where information passes for knowledge and, eventually, thought will disappear. The brain will no longer be surprised into action because it will not understand the black scrawls in front of it.

Dr Steve Attridge is a professional writer and a tutor at Ruskin College. His recent book, Bottom of the List, is published by Bewrite Books.

Many thanks for a fascinating article, Steve. And thanks to the Oxford Left Review for carrying it in full in their latest edition.  You can read more about Steve Attridge here: and about his new book, 'Bottom of the List', in the bookstore at:

Best wishes. Neil M.


  1. Fascinating and informative article. However, as a dyslexic, I have to take issue with some of the content. I cannot tell left from right, despite the best efforts of my parents and early schooling. It wasn't their fault that I couldn't do it; it's my brain geography. Like many dyslexics, I never went through the phase of crawling as a toddler, though whether this is a cause or a consequence of dyslexia is a moot point. I sometimes even confuse up and down. I was the last person in my class to learn to read. Am I illiterate as a result? Far from it. I learnt different ways to read which don't rely on being able to move the eyes from left to right.

    Dyslexia is a real, biological condition. Those of us who have it generally find ways around it, and some of us as a result turn into voracious readers and writers. Others aren't interested in reading in the first place, so never make the effort. Of course there is another group -- the non-dyslexics who can't read for one reason or another, find themselves saddled with the label, discover they're advantaged as a result, so are quite happy to keep the label. Good luck to 'em.

  2. I've been reading your words for many years, Cathy; the poetry, the shorts, the novels. Also I've marveled over your breathtaking sketching and painting skills. It never even crossed my mind that you might have a dyslexia problem (what sadist invented that awkward word for a reading disorder anyway?)

    I also remember being assisted by a very able editor in the US who was dyslexic and overcame the hitch by reading on screen and, temporarily, changing background colours, fonts, etc as he read. Tremendously accurate, he was.

    There is, though, a case for saying that 'dyslexia' is too often cited as an excuse for an illiteracy that's more honestly put down to indifferent education, peer and parental complacency, and sheer laziness.

    You and the chap I mention overcame your 'handicap' through rigorously applied self-education. But I guess you've hurt through the years. This explains why I've only recently been able to congratulate you on new academic examination success in -- among other things -- the French language (as written as well as spoken).

    Best wishes. Neil

  3. As a retired teacher of languages I can attest to the fact that dylexia has been used as an excuse for poor parenting, poor teaching, and a perplexing, fast-evolving education system.

    No matter where one lives, one can relate to Steve's article, and also to Catherine's response: they are ultimately saying the same thing. If parents and the system recognised the fundamental raison d'etre of reading, there would be less illiterate 'students'.

    The problem with universities is that few distinguish their many roles today. They need to be vocational institutes by reason of funding and justification of their existence in the first place. They also need to fulfil Cardinal Newman's wishful rationale. We once used to separate these two, with technical colleges and universities seen to have separate discrete roles, but the gritty facts of how economies work have shown us that separation is neither possible nor workable. This does not mean we cannot clearly outline the different possible roles a univerity should play in society.

    Competent literacy is denied to many because of the way society works, which means excuses for it will continue to be invented and perpetuated through mass belief in myths like 'endemic dyslexia'.

    As long as children continue to be 'minded' and 'cared for' rather than raised or brought up, the erosion of competent reading will persist.
    Children who are minded from a tender age, by people of different mind-sets, education levels, cultures and custom, grow in a vastly different way from those who are brought up intellectually as well as physically, by a family member who attends (sometimes unwittingly) to the triggering of those vital cerebral machinations that change the brain from a merely reactive survival organ to the sophisticated, automated, literate MIND it can be.