Parents tend to take it on faith that reading to children every day has benefits. Why shouldn’t they? The “Read to your child every day” mantra has advocates that include the American Library Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other professional organizations.
But such authorities may have oversold the benefits of sitting down with a preschooler and a copy of Where the Wild Things Are, especially if parents hope that the habit will lead to success in school. Some of the evidence appears in Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s bestselling Freakonomics, an exploration of many assumptions that Americans take for granted.
Levitt and Dubner note that in the late 1990s, the U.S. Department of Education launched the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which aimed to measure the academic progress of 20,000 American children from kindergarten through fifth grade. That project found that, at least insofar as test scores are concerned, reading to your child every day has no benefit. Children with many books in their home do perform well on school tests, the survey found. “But,” the authors write, “regularly reading to a child doesn’t affect test scores.”
Linda Polman indicts humanitarian-aid abuses and journalists who turn a blind eye to them in her The Crisis Caravan (Metropolitan, 2010). In this excerpt, she quotes a former employee of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) who saw the “churnalism”:
“Do aid workers use journalists? Of course, they do, said Jacques de Milliano, former director of the Dutch MSF. ‘To raise funds. It’s the job of journalists to provide balanced reporting, to refuse to prostitute themselves to aid organizations. There ought to be an element of journalistic pride.’
“Journalism seems to be moving in precisely the opposite direction. Costs are cut and standards are eroded by media proprietors, resulting in what the British journalist Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News calls ‘churnalism’; in other words, ‘journalists failing to perform the simple basic functions of their profession; quite unable to tell their readers the truth about what is happening on their patch. This is journalists who are no longer out gathering but who are reduced instead to passive processors of whatever material comes their way, churning out stories, whether real event or PR artifice, important or trivial, true or false.’”
Americans may have no monarchy, but they know how to treat people royally. In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton describes how New Yorkers reacted to the arrival of Ellen Olenska, who had returned to the city after years in Europe:
“The Lovell Mingotts had sent out cards for what was known as ‘a formal dinner’ (that is, three extra footmen, two dishes for each course, and a Roman punch in the middle), and had headed their invitations with the words ‘To Meet the Countess Olenska,’ in accordance with the hospitable American fashion, which treats strangers as if they were royalties, or at least their ambassadors.”
Jerry Seinfeld joked that his long-running NBC sitcom was “a show about nothing.” Did Madame Bovary inspire the words that became one of the best-known catchphrases in television? Consider this passage from One-Hundred Great French Books (BlueBridge, 2010), by Lance Donaldson-Evans, a professor of romance languages at the University of Pennsylvania:
“Flaubert once described Madame Bovary as a work ‘about nothing,’ a curious description for a book in which a great deal happens. What he really meant was that he had deliberately selected a trite subject in order to show that even banality could be redeemed by art. “
Dr. Spock has yielded a lot of ground to a new generation to child-rearing experts like the American pediatrician Bill Sears and the British psychologist Penelope Leach. But it’s hard to overstate the influence of his Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care on parents of baby boomers. First published in 1946, Spock’s guide helped to introduce to America the theories of Sigmund Freud, including that “infantile experiences” and “repressed sexual desires” led to unhappiness in adulthood.
Steve Gillon writes in Boomer Nation: The Largest and Richest Generation Ever and How It Changed America (Free Press, 2004):
“Thanks to Benjamin Spock, Boomers – often called ‘Spock babies’ – had Freud mixed with their baby formula. ‘Benjamin Spock probably did more than any single individual to disseminate the theory of Sigmund Freud in America,’ observed the psychiatrist and Freudian critic E. Fuller Torrey. Spock, whose The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946) served as the bible for Boomer parents, had attended the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in the 1930s and was determined to bring Freud and his ideas to a mass audience. Spock rejected his own upbringing, which emphasized strict feeding schedules and unchanging routines, and insisted that parents respond to the needs and schedules of their children. ‘Trust yourself, you know more than you think you do,’ he reassured worried new parents. His ideas reflected the optimism of the age, reinforcing that personality was malleable only if parents developed the right skills. Along with practical advice about colic, toilet training, and temper tantrums, Spock offered parents sugar-coated doses of Freudian psychology. Since he believed that most adult problems began in childhood, Spock instructed parents about the concepts of ‘sibling rivalry’ and used Freud’s Oedipus complex to explain the behavior of 6-year-olds.”
“She had been bored all the afternoon by Percy Gryce … but she … must submit to more boredom … all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life.”
Edith Wharton on Lily Bart, the heroine of her novel The House of Mirth
Screenwriter Tracey Jackson talks about women in film and television in her new Between a Rock and a Hot Place: Why Fifty Is Not the New Thirty (Harper, 287 pp., $25.99):
“In Hollywood 30 is considered 80, especially where women are concerned. This attitude tends to affect actresses first, but the second group on its hit list is usually writers, particularly those who write comedy, a genre not very friendly to women to begin with. …
“As in every profession, there are exceptions to the rule, and one of the biggest exceptions, if not the biggest, is that if you are a superstar in your field by the time you are 50, you can skid forward to at least 60. … You can run down a list of women in their 50s and 60s in top jobs, but I promise you every one of them was a superstar in her world by no later than 45. The general consensus seems to be that if you haven’t made it by then, the chances are you aren’t going to, so why keep you around?”
Early diagnosis can hurt you, three doctors argue their new Overdiagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health (Beacon Press, 228 pp., $24.95). Too many Americans are being treated for conditions that will never cause symptoms, let alone death, say H. Gilbert Welch, Lisa Schwartz, and Steven Woolshin. Some people contend that no harm can come of the “epidemic of diagnosis”:
“But the truth is that early diagnosis is a double-edged sword. While it has the potential to help some, it always has a hidden danger: overdiagnosis—the detection of abnormalities that are not destined to ever bother us. …
“the conventional wisdom is that more diagnosis—particularly, more early diagnosis—means better medical care. The logic goes something like this: more diagnosis means more treatment, and more treatment means better health. This may be true for some. But there is another side to the story. More diagnosis may make healthy people feel more vulnerable—and, ironically, less healthy. In other words, excessive diagnosis can literally make you feel sick. And more diagnosis leads to excessive treatment—treatment for problems that either aren’t that bothersome or aren’t bothersome at all. Excessive treatment, of course, can really hurt you. Excessive diagnosis may lead to treatment that is worse than the disease.”
You can read the introduction to Overdiagnosed on Scribed.
© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
Critics have all but ignored the obvious religious motifs in Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, including its many references to God, Jesus, and Christian saints. But Donoghue talked about the spiritual framework for her bestseller in an Economist interview about the book, which tells the story of a mother and her 5-year-old son held captive in a backyard garden shed. Here is an excerpt from her comments:
The Economist: Both Ma and Jack pray and, especially in the case of Ma, find comfort in their faith. How does faith figure in to Room?
Emma Donoghue: I’ve always been religiously inclined but it doesn’t come up in most of my books. I always knew it would be central to Room because prisoners cling to whatever tatters of faith they’ve got: look at those Chilean miners and their daily prayer groups. Between you and me, I’m not sure how literally Ma believes in all that, but it certainly makes sense that she would have taken whatever vague Christian framework she had and offered it to Jack as part of her system for making meaning of their days, and keeping hope alive. Kids delight in “magical thinking,” whether in the form of the Tooth Fairy or the saints: whether you see these as comforting lies or eternal verities, they are part of how we help kids make sense of the world. I think that’s why the religious element of Room does not seem to bother non-religious readers; they can just put it on a par with Santa. But for me, Room is a peculiar (and no doubt heretical) battle between Mary and the Devil for young Jesus. If God sounds absent from that triangle, that’s because I think for a small child God’s love is represented, and proved, by mother-love.
You can read the full interview on the Prospero blog for the Economist. And you can read more about the religious motifs in a One-Minute Book Reviews review of Room and in a reading group guide to the novel.
As a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, Megan K. Stack saw the government of Hosni Mubarak steal an election from the rival Muslim Brotherhood party, a force in this week’s uprising in Egypt. Stack describes the event in “The Earthquake Nobody Felt,” a chapter in her 2010 National Book Award finalist, Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War (Doubleday, 2010). Her book includes this comment:
“There was only one source of serious political opposition to the Egyptian autocracy, a single party strong enough to unseat the government – and that was the Muslim Brotherhood, a nonviolent Islamist movement with deep roots across Egypt. Officially, the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed, but the reality was nuanced. The government would pass through bouts of tolerance, then round up activists and raid party offices in crackdowns. Nobody stood to gain more from democratic reform than the Brotherhood, because no other force in Egypt had its legitimate popularity, the grass roots credibility, the air of moral authority.”
A review of Every Man in This Village Is a Liar appeared on this site in September.