Reading to kids: Is nothing sacred?

By Amy Halloran

By Letters to the Editor

Published November 2, 2000 8:45AM (EST)

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Outraged e-mails from two of your readers alerted me to the article by Amy Halloran about a lecture I recently gave at the University at Albany. Both of them wanted to know if I was in my right mind for saying what Halloran claimed I had said. "What's all this?" I wondered as I clicked on the link graciously provided by my angry correspondents ...

No wonder they're angry! According to Halloran, I delivered a diatribe against parents, especially mothers, reading to their children! It is a violent act, I am supposed to have said, and Halloran drew the conclusion that only unchecked professional ambition could explain my embrace of such a stunningly stupid theory.

Well, Halloran certainly needs no lessons in violence from me. After reading her report, I feel as if I have just been mugged.

By way of reply to my alarmed correspondents, let me say that Halloran apparently heard only two or three sentences in a 22-page paper. My remarks about the violence involved in learning to read came toward the end of a long discussion concerning both histories and sciences of reading. I reviewed in particular the discovery, at the end of the 19th century, of a specific reading disorder and situated this emergence of a science of reading in relation to the achievement of universal literacy education in the same century. I also spent a lot of time analyzing a passage from St. Augustine's "Confessions" where he describes seeing for the first time someone (St. Ambrose) reading not aloud, as was still the common practice even when alone, but silently to himself.

Now, the point of all this was to bring out the fact that the other reading and the other's reading remain phenomena that are essentially and irreducibly unobservable from within. This is quite obvious, of course, and yet the sciences of reading, above all those based in neurology, are predicated on the opposite presumption. Nevertheless, it was not my aim either to denounce this scientific presumption or to question that the reading process must also be studied in its organic or neurological aspects. I did, however, question the state of interdisciplinary reading research produced by such a total ban on any insight coming from either psychoanalysis or my own field of literary theory. My lecture attempts to begin to lift this ban by calling in its conclusion for a truly interdisciplinary approach to the study of reading phenomena.

I would be the last one to fault Halloran for not hearing any of this. It's pretty dry stuff, and hardly the sort of thing a freelance feature writer can hope to sell. Which is why, I guess, she had to make it sound as if I ranted for 40-plus minutes about the violence parents are doing to their children by reading to them. Yes, I did at one point and in passing characterize this scene as a violent one, but of course I was talking about the sort of violence that has to undergo repression. (As for her characterization of my remarks during the question session, she is quite simply wrong: The reference I made then to violence concerned the protocols of the sciences of reading and had nothing whatever to do with mothers reading to their children, which never again came up.)

Judging by her indignant reaction, I would surmise Halloran thinks we should repress even the mere suggestion that the initiation of children into language involves a certain violence. She implies that I simply discounted or dismissed the advantages there are in civilizing the human animal through language, which is the height of absurdity. Just because Halloran, for whatever reasons, harbors such undisguised contempt for academics, that doesn't mean we are in fact all total fools in the university.

It is, finally, this contempt I find so shocking in Halloran's unjustified and unjustifiable attack. She goes so far as to insinuate I had purely careerist motives for pursuing a line of thought that, by all appearances, she did not even begin to follow. This insinuation is simply an ugly insult, the motivations for which I, unlike Halloran, will not presume I understand. I will permit myself to observe, however, that Halloran's time would doubtless have been much better spent if she had stayed home the morning of my lecture and read to her child.

-- Peggy Kamuf
Professor of French and Comparative Literature
University of Southern California

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