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Distracted Reading: Sometimes, It Is a Great Notion

by Michael Milone on Apr 19, 2017

  • Literacy

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any reader in possession of a good book must be attentive. If those words sound familiar, then you know what I am talking about. If they are new to you, then you have a very important work of literature to include on your “I'd better read this” list.

Paying attention is a consummation devoutly to be wished in most circumstances, from successfully implementing a recipe in the kitchen to driving a horseless carriage, sometimes called a motorcar. By so doing, we are more likely to accomplish our goal, whatever it might be, whilst avoiding the less-than-pleasant circumstance of inconveniencing others.

The need for attention is especially compelling for young learners, whose minds have not yet accumulated the sense or sensibility of their elders. Please do not mistake my urgings, for like you, I recognize the importance of attending to the task at hand, no matter what it might be.

There are, however, circumstances when distracted reading, although trying to one’s soul, is advantageous and to be encouraged, for both works of fiction and those that inform us mightily. Distractions that are warranted by the nature of the text will, indeed, be beneficial to the young reader in ways such as enhancing comprehension of the text and promoting intellectual curiosity, both should be objects of our desire.

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian

Recently, it was my pleasure to complete an informative reading by a much-renowned writer, and deservedly so, Dr. Wallace Stegner. Did you not know this author completed his doctoral studies at the University of Iowa? Be that as it may, the work, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, pays homage to one of our greatest, yet often unrecognized, American heroes, John Wesley Powell. Powell’s adventure in the Grand Canyon was but a small part of his contribution to our understanding of the American West and the establishment of the scientific divisions of government.

Reading Stegner’s work was the model of a modern major literal adventure for several reasons: It was written in the 1950s; it reflected Stegner’s elegant style; and, it reflected upon events that happened from the Civil War to the immediate turn of the century. The work included references to people and events that were so intriguing that, as I read, I had to interrupt the focus of my effort and divert my attention to learning about them, a most fulfilling sequence of diversions, I admit. Powell’s admonitions regarding the drought-plagued, semi-arid regions beyond the 100th meridian were particularly meaningful to me since I live at approximately 106 degrees west of the Prime Meridian.

Yet, these informational distractions were not the sole source of my discontent, for I found myself wandering through the looking-glass and reviewing the flow of his words, recognizing this informational text had the same enchantment as the author’s most magnificent work of fiction, Angle of Repose. Being so moved, I realized my distracted reading was not a sign of inattention, but a solicited response to the purposes for which the work was written, a swerve of shore to bend of bay, as it were, to recirculate me back to thoughtful consideration.

What came to mind was the two paths, one adhering to the original text, and one that set me to wandering, could both be traveled. There was no need to keep one for another day as I was not constrained by time. So, I allowed my curiosity to direct me, thus learning more about, among other things, Henry Brook Adams, the naming of Bright Angel Creek, and the first images of the Grand Canyon and other geologic wonders.

Wandering Through Forests of Knowledge

My joy, however, was lessened by the knowledge that so many of our young people are denied such leisurely distraction because these diversions into knowledge and writing style do not manifest themselves as superior performance on tests that are the objects of admiration by so many who are misinformed. “Might there be some way,” I wondered to myself, “that I can persuade those who superintend the education of our dear children to provide them with the opportunity and encouragement to spend a little time wandering through forests of knowledge?”

“Perhaps,” I answered, “but only if they are disposed to recognizing the value of such wanderings toward enlightenment as being essential to becoming literate citizens whose prospects of future accomplishments are exceedingly enhanced by such endeavors.”

And so, my friends, I leave you with this thought, and I hope you will give it fair consideration. Although these are times when the burden of test performance is unduly heavy and tries one’s soul, let us not become mired in a fen of testing. Instead, when it seems appropriate, encourage brief spells of distracted reading with the ambition that such meandering will accomplish purposes far beyond our greatest expectations.

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