Port of Byblos, Lebanon (Source: http://www.aaa-arch.com/)
We travel from Catalonia to Lebanon in this new entry also based on a doctoral study. Nayla summarizes some of her findings and, most importantly, reflects on how what reading means for young people living in contexts of insecurity, a theme we have also highlighted in our research in Mexico and which, unfortunately, is relevant in so many countries around the world. Once again we note how research into reading and other literacy practices is enriched by young people’s voices and their views on the impact of historical and current social and political contexts on these practices.
Nayla Aramouni grew up in Lebanon where she completed her undergraduate degree in Education at the American University of Beirut. She spent the early days of her career there, working to encourage reading as a teacher, an educational bookstore manager, and in an educational company. She travelled to the UK in 2008 and completed an MPhil in Children’s Literature and a PhD in Education at the University of Cambridge. She is currently programmes coordinator and grants scheme manager at an international non-profit organization in Cambridge, UK and continues to devote time to young people and their reading.
A few years ago I embarked on a PhD which investigated the attitudes towards reading of young adults in Lebanon. This was not an arbitrary choice. First of all, I was born and raised in Lebanon, and I was continually struck while growing up (and when I was all done growing up) by how many people claimed they loved to read and how few people actually did. I hardly ever saw anyone reading. Not in cafes, not in doctors’ waiting rooms, not in the playground, teachers’ staffroom, or any public space at all. Yet reading was, nominally, highly regarded and valued. Beauty pageant contestants and CVs across the land claimed reading as a hobby.
Lebanon is a beautiful and intriguing country, with a lot to offer. However, it is also volatile and complex. You will rarely come across any mention of it that fails to mention its 15-year-long civil war, the effects of which are still very pronounced. Years of instability have created what the Lebanese tend to call “The Situation”, an all-encompassing term for the problems within the country, which affect every aspect of life in Lebanon – including, as I discovered, young adults’ reading.
View of Beirut taken near my family home in the town, Brummana (Photo credit: my sister-in-law, Stacy)
“The Corniche”, Beirut, Lebanon (Source: www. http://www.beirut.com/l/25110)
My investigation began with a definition of terms such as ‘reading for pleasure’. I wanted to focus my investigation on reading that was done primarily for pleasure. It didn’t matter what was being read, so long as the main motivation was pleasure. For example, I excluded from my study activities like reading an online review of a mobile phone handset that the reader was considering buying. Similarly, texts such as the back-stories and narratives that appear in many video games were not considered, since these were being read to progress the game. My study was underpinned by theories of reading attitude acquisition and motivation, reading culture, reader development, and reader response. The study was also informed by the gaps I identified in the literature pertaining to reading in the Middle East and Lebanon.
The study took place at two privately run, secular, mixed-sex schools which had libraries on site and used English as their language of instruction. My participants were in their final year of school and were selected based on their responses to a survey questionnaire I distributed to the students in their year. I conducted semi-structured individual interviews with each of them and returned later to conduct small-group interviews with those who were willing and able to do so.
My first finding was good news. Every one of my participants, no matter how adamant they were about the fact that they hated reading and never read, had at least one book that they described with bright eyes and wide smiles. They had all had an experience with reading that was extremely positive. That hadn’t been enough, however, to cultivate a habit of reading for most.
When asked what they liked to read, those I interviewed seemed to like the same kind of things as their counterparts all over the world: Harry Potter, Twilight, Agatha Christie. Philosophy was a surprisingly common favourite among those who claimed they did not enjoy reading, with Sophie’s World coming up as a favourite book more often than, for example, Harry Potter.
However, the reasons why these students enjoyed these books seemed to be slightly different from the reasons their counterparts around the world might give. They read western fiction because it was different to their own reality. They tended to avoid any work that had not emerged from Europe or America, because they felt that most of the subject matter in local literature pertained to war and suffering. According to several of my participants, because of “The Situation”, most readers in Lebanon preferred not to read content that dealt too closely with topics that were considered “violent”, “gruesome”, or “depressing”. Latent anxiety linked to “The Situation” also seemed to play a role in limiting the amount of reading even among those who had positive reading attitudes. Even with relatively good access to books, and even for students highly motivated to read, the number of books read was relatively small and overestimated by the readers themselves. Although the students with positive reading attitudes were keen readers who read widely, the number of books they read was much smaller than the figures found for keen readers in other studies from around the world (e.g. the U.K., U.S.A., and South Africa). I also found that libraries were rarely used to obtain reading material. Books were usually purchased from one of two bookstores, or, if this was too inconvenient or costly, illegally downloaded online.
A branch of Librarie Antoine, one of two bookstores frequented by my participants. during (top) and after (bottom) the civil war. (Source: http://bibliobs.nouvelobs.com/la-tendance-de-jerome-garcin/20120531.OBS7164/saint-beyrouth-des-pres.html)
In terms of how reading was assigned in schools, it was clear that being “forced” to read, as the participants put it, did have its advantages when students were given a wide enough choice of books to select from. This was particularly pronounced in those identified as having negative or neutral attitudes towards reading (as determined by the survey administered before the interviews), for whom it ensured that reading took place long and regularly enough for a deeper level of engagement to be reached. The first school I worked with assigned students two books to read over the summer, while the second gave students a broad list of books from which they were allowed to select two. Those in the second group, who had compulsory reading time but some choice over what they read, all acknowledged the fact that they had engaged with and enjoyed at least one book in that year of "forced" reading On the other hand, all of the students in the other group, who were given no choice over what they read, felt that this lack of choice made them “hate reading”.
Frank Smith (1988) introduced the metaphor of a Literacy Club that illustrates the belief that we learn to read and to enjoy reading by "joining the club" of people we see ourselves as being like. What I found, however, was that there can be different kinds of Literacy Clubs, each with its own culture and rules of membership. One seemed to have a literacy club that was inclusive in the sense that the majority of the school community had an interest in reading and often recommended and engaged in discussions about books. There was no sharp distinction between those who liked to read and those who didn’t. The other had less respect and admiration for their teachers and peers as readers and there was a sharp divide between those who read and those who did not. Those who were readers saw themselves, and were seen by others, as part of an elite group. Perhaps as a consequence, there was less personal engagement with the material being read, since the act of reading seemed to be driven not only by pleasure, but also by the desire to belong to the group of “readers” and take on the traits associated with that group.
There were several eye opening moments for me during the investigation. One of the most notable for me was identifying The Situation as an influence on reading attitudes and behaviour. Having been born and raised in it myself, I did not see right away that there was an “it” at all. Only when I was analysing my transcripts and reread (for the hundredth time) a quote from a participant (whom I have called Rami) did it dawn on me. I was both excited and deeply saddened by the sudden clarity. Rami loves to read, but he described a time when he decided it wasn’t for him anymore.
Actually, I was angry because it was the coming-of-age part where I started to understand what Lebanon is, the situation, the whole dilemma, and so I became angry and was like, ‘what’s the point of reading books that had a lot of meanings and messages and images when the situation we live in is not healthy and we could invest this same time in something else?’ I don’t know what that other thing is. It was like an excuse, I don’t know.
Rami’s thought process puts into words the extent to which young people’s reading in Lebanon is influenced by their context. What he was reading about suddenly became pointless as he saw it framed in his environment and subjected his hobby to rational scrutiny. This created the “dilemma” or tension between what he loved to do (reading) and what he felt his environment was forcing him to become. He, like many others, however, knew instinctually that there were benefits to reading that could have a positive impact on the world around him. This is what drove him to reconsider his decision and continue to read. During the final stages of my PhD, new research began to emerge about the ways in which reading fiction can enhance Theory of Mind, relatedness, and empathy (Kidd & Castano 2013). Perhaps Rami once felt that reading was pointless, given The Situation, but this new research provides scientific evidence that his instinct about the benefits of reading was correct. Reading fiction could help him make sense of and cope with the world around him. It is yet another reason to strive to promote reading for pleasure and provides further proof of how reading can change us and the world around us.
Al Amine, A., Abouchedid, K., Llabre, M., Hadi, F., Gharzeddine, M., Huri, M., & Maiky, C. (2008). The psychological conditions of children and youth in Lebanon after the July 2006 war. Beirut, Lebanon: Lebanese Association for Educational Studies and the Kuwait Society for the Advancement of Arab Children
Kidd, D., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science, 1(October), 1–6. doi:10.1126/science.1239918
Smith, F. (1988). Joining the Literacy Club: Further Essays in Education. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.