Philip Yaffe has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and marketing communication. He has been a journalism teacher, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a marketing communication agency in Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974. He is author of The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional.
You probably went to enjoy yourself; however, the judges who honored the film did so for technical reasons. If you had fully understood why the professionals considered the film so good, you still may not have enjoyed it while nevertheless appreciating it as a work of art.
Personally, I detest modern jazz. I would rather eat broken glass than go to a modern jazz concert. On the other hand, I understand the principles and techniques of modern jazz. So if I were ever trapped into attending a concert, I would probably still come out wishing I had never been there, while at the same time saying, "Wow, those guys were great!"
What does all this have to do with reading?
For well over a century now, since the invention of the telephone, the cinema, radio, television, video games, etc., people have been lamenting the apparently increasing reluctance of children to read.
They are absolutely right in averring that failure to appreciate the written word reduces a child's quality of life. However they are absolutely wrong in the belief that giving greater emphasis to literature in schools will remedy the problem. On the contrary, it would probably only make matter worse. As any teacher knows, forcing children to do what they don't want to do is hardly likely to engender a love of doing it, either now or later on.
My solution: If you want them to read, teach them to write.
Like virtually every other American schoolchild, I had to study and learn to recite Abraham Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address, commemorating a pivotal victory in the American Civil War. As a secondary school student, I fully appreciated the historical significance of the Gettysburg Address, but its literary significance escaped me. That came several years later, when I learned to write.
By writing, I don't mean putting together grammatically and syntactically correct sentences and paragraphs, which I already knew, but putting together clear, concise, readably texts.
When I learned the Gettysburg Address, I found it banally simple. How could this be great literature compared to Shakespeare, who was always held up as the literary titan?
What I hadn't understood was that writing simply is a much greater challenge than writing complexly, because I was never taught this. I was also never taught is that once you unravel the archaic language, Shakespeare stands as a literary titan precisely because his writing is also simple and straightforward. If you don't believe it, reread the famous Hamlet soliloquy ("To be or not to be, that is the question") or the Mark Anthony soliloquy ("Friends, Romans, Country, Lend me your ears") looking for the underlying simplicity.
For example, having wheedled authorization to speak at Caesar's funeral, Anthony opens his oration:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious. If it were so, it was a grievous fault, and grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest — for Brutus is an honorable man; so are they all, all honorable men — come I to speak in Caesar's funeral. He was my friend, faithful and just to me. But Brutus says he was ambitious, and Brutus is an honorable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome, whose ransoms did the general coffers fill. Did this in Caesar seem ambitious? When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept. Ambition should be made of sterner stuff. Yet Brutus says he was ambitious, and Brutus is an honorable man.
What could be simpler than this –- or more effective?
So what do I recommend to get children to read more? For me, the illumination occurred when I took an introductory journalism course during my first year at university on the recommendation of a high school teacher. Basically, he told me: “Philip, you have such interesting, original ideas. Why do you bury them under such complex, convoluted language? Next year when you go to university, I suggest that you take a one-term course in basic journalism to learn how to simplify your writing.”
I had no particular interest in journalism, or even in writing; I was heading for a science degree. However, I did have particular respect for this teacher, so I decided to follow his advice. At university I enrolled in a first-term journalism class.
Learning the challenges and rewards of simplicity in university, as I did, is much too late. The basic attitudes and techniques of journalism should be taught as early as possible. This doesn't necessarily mean formal journalism classes. I will leave to the professional pedagogues to determine the best ways and means of making these attitudes and techniques an integral part of the high school (and even middle school) curriculum. But I am unalterably convinced that it should be done.
I continued on to my science degree. However, having followed the fateful advice of my high school mentor, I become a professional writer rather than a mathematician or physicist as I had expected. All of this occurred 50 years ago. Now in the twilight of my career, I recently wrote a book distilling everything I have learned about writing –- and by extension public speaking — over the past half-century. You should not be surprised to learn that it is dedicated to Abraham Lincoln's miniature masterpiece. Its title is The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional.
Because I now appreciate the challenge of simplicity, I fully appreciate Lincoln and Shakespeare in equal measure. Both recognized and triumphed over the challenge in superbly inimitable ways. I only wish that this knowledge had come to me purposefully in middle or high school, not fortuitously after my ascension to university.
So if you want them to read, teach them to write. As with anything else, the better you understand how something is made, the more likely you are to appreciate the end product. Given all the distractions children today are heir to, electronic or otherwise, getting them to read to teaching them to write may be the only way.