To Read or Not to Read

Books, books, and…

by Terry Wieland

To be honest, I have a very low opinion of English teachers. There are exceptions, but not many. I’m sure there are lots of fine, dedicated, literate ones out there, but obviously, they avoided me. And who can blame them?

I write this from the viewpoint of one who comes from a family of devoted readers — mother, father, all of them — and learned to read before I started school. I believed then, and I believe now, that reading is the essential cornerstone of education whether you are studying Shakespeare, heart surgery, or quantum physics. If you love to read, you will effortlessly educate yourself throughout your life. The term is “autodidact,” which means “self-taught,” but then I expect you all knew that.

Gray’s readers are all, well, readers. And Gray’s Sporting Journal has been a literary magazine for going on 50 years. Sure, we have photo essays, but those are adjuncts to the essential element, which is the written word. And that brings me to the subject of this diatribe: A resolution by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) that it is time to “de-center” both the reading of books and the writing of essays from the teaching of what they now call “communication arts.”

It is time, saith this assemblage of morons, to emphasize “modern” means of communicating, such as “memes and gifs and selfies,” and forget such outdated practices as actually finishing a book, or writing a coherent paragraph.

If you wish to plumb the full idiocy of what they are suggesting, you can find Daniel Buck’s article in National Review ( or go to the NCTE’s website. This organization is 111 years old, and began with laudable aims, but to look at the opaque jumble of virtue-signaling buzzwords that now comprises its mission statement, it’s obvious they long ago lost the plot.

…more books. A tiny part of the vast literature of hunting and shooting.

About 20 years ago, I was discussing the state of English-language pedagogy with one English teacher I actually liked and respected. Particularly, we were talking about the steady downgrading of teaching spelling and grammar. He told me that in the 1970s, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), a government-funded, Marxist-dominated, education think tank, determined that the way to undermine western society and pave the way for a Marxist utopia — like Cambodia, perhaps, or North Korea — was to destroy the English language.

Whether or not that is strictly true, and I believe it was, they could hardly have gone about it more effectively. If you can’t read, you can’t learn; if you can’t learn on your own, then you will absorb, accept, and believe the propaganda. It’s no wonder totalitarian regimes make book burning the first order of business.

Hunting and shooting are two pastimes that have their own literature. It is vast and ancient, the first known western reference being in Homer, describing the games held in honor of Patroclus’s funeral during the siege of Troy. These included pigeon shooting, and we can find references from that time on, with the first books devoted to it appearing as early as the 14th century.

Cave paintings with hunting subjects go back much farther, of course, with some estimates around 20,000 years. While a stone-age depiction of an antelope is certainly valuable, it hardly compares in educational terms with, for example, W.W. Greener’s The Gun and its Development (1881), Charles Lancaster’s The Art of Shooting (1889), or Neal & Back’s two-volume history of the Manton brothers (1966). To the best of my knowledge, the first two have not been out of print since they were first published, which gives an idea — in spite of some recognized shortcomings — of their enduring value to students of guns and shooting.

When I was still in the early grades of public school, age ten or thereabouts, it became fashionable for avant garde teachers to promote the idea of films as a method of learning preferable to reading books. Periodically, we were paraded into the musty basement auditorium, with its battered upright piano on one corner of the stage. A screen was unrolled and we watched as teachers wrestled with movie projectors to give us half an hour of “audio-visual” learning.

One thing I learned from those experiences is that you learn remarkably little from watching a film, even a so-called educational one. The problem is that, while reading is active, watching a movie is passive. You can snooze, literally or figuratively, through long stretches of even the most exciting movie, but if you fall asleep reading, the book slips from your hands and waits patiently for you to return to it.

It feels strange, trying to promote the value of books over emojis and YouTube videos; to me, it’s self-evident and should require no explanation. But then, I’m lucky:  I love to read, and I always have, and if it hasn’t always served me well, it has certainly served me better than every school I’ve ever been in.

Gray’s Shooting Editor Terry Wieland’s first real reading experience, at the age of five, was an unexpurgated edition of The Three Musketeers (Everyman’s Library, leather bound, tiny print on onion-skin paper) complete with sex and politics, betrayal and death. DArtagnan’s sense of honor remains deeply ingrained.