Every second evening, sometime between seven and eight, I engage in one of my favourite acts of parenting: reading bedtime stories to my son. Cozy and warm in a strategically darkened room, surrounded by toys that have been smuggled into bed, my five-year-old son listens to me read. I read one, two or three books or, now that we have progressed into the world of chapter books, multiple chapters before the light goes out. Then he has to endure the stories I weave together for him in the dark as I try to lull him to sleep while doing my best to keep myself awake and on the path of a coherent and not too boring story. These sessions-which can last from a matter of minutes to well over an hour-represent some of the most wonderful, calm and rewarding moments of being a parent, but they also represent subtle battles of will between an all to wakeful child and a tired parent. Through the materiality of the books that I read to him, a host of cultural values and power positions are played.
On one recent night, I read to him a picture book by Oliver Jeffers called The Incredible Book Eating Boy, about Henry, a young boy who absolutely devours books, literally. Henry begins by nibbling on single words and sentences before eating whole books, and then multiple books at a sitting. As he eats the books, he gets smarter and smarter until he begins to feel that if he just keeps eating books, he will be the smartest person in the world. Things go wrong, however, when he starts to have trouble properly digesting the books he is eating, and soon he has to give up eating books entirely. That is when he discovers another way to consume books, through his eyes by reading. He can’t devour the books as quickly, but he has no further problems with indigestion. The book does have one corner bitten out of the bottom of it (with what appears to be Henry’s teeth marks), so it is clear that Henry still tucks into his books from time to time. The book itself is multi-modal in its presentation, with typewritten text and handwritten script mixed in with wonderful illustrations of Henry consuming books. The pages are a pastiche of literate culture: fragments of book covers and torn pages; old office forms and ledger pages with various remnants of writing on them; ruled note pages and graphing paper; snippets of newspapers and index cards. The visual space of the book is instantly recognizable to an adult as containing elements of the world of literacy, but from the perspective of a pre-literate child (born long after many of these artifacts of literacy have ceased to be in common use), it is likely that the images merely form interesting textures and surfaces upon which the story unfolds.
Jeffers’ children’s book is a productive site for considering the concept of mediated action in that the act of reading a book (particularly in the charged relationship with one’s child) nicely illustrates the dynamic relationship between an acting agent and the meditational means, in this case a significant cultural tool, a book. As well, significantly, at the same time as I use the book as a means to achieve multiple goals (such as strengthening my relationship with my son, entertaining him with fun and interesting stories and getting him to go to sleep!), with this cultural tool, I am inculcating him with values of literate culture, which includes the regular consumption of delicious texts. In defining the characteristics of mediated action, Wertsche (1998) asserts that meditational means are always material and that their use results in changes in the agents that use them. I long ago gained mastery in the use of the cultural tools associated with literacy (in part thanks to my own experience of being read to by my parents who undoubtedly were trying to get me to go to sleep), and my own skill in using this cultural tool resulted in changes in how I conceive of the world. The impact of the materiality of this mediating means is also evident in my son as he learns to recognize the importance of the codex as a container of words, sentences and narratives: structures that will influence how he organizes the world he is increasingly able to explore; structures which also will influence how his brain organizes itself in relation to the world.
I was particularly intrigued by Wertsche’s point that the material nature of meditational means plays an important role in determining how internal processes develop in agents as evident by the skills that they develop in using cultural tools. Wertsche cautions those who want to apply a sociocultural approach that they need to be careful about how they use the term internal or internalization, since most mediating means (like the pole vault example he offers) rarely make it to an internal plane. The materiality of the book may not, itself, be interiorized, though the process of reading or literacy is more likely to be a skill that is internalized and by being internalized, forever alters how the brain processes information. I am influenced in this matter in part by Maryanne Wolf’s (2007) book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist, uses data from brain imaging of people who are dyslexic in comparison to people who are able to read and asserts that the scans reveal that the brain creates specific pathways or neuronal circuits that assist in the pattern matching processes between what people see and what they hear (in those who can read), and in pathways that are less efficient in doing so (in those who cannot read). Certainly imaging technologies establish a particular focus on what is important for study (being an apparatus of cognitive neuroscience), but some of Wolf’s research seems to provide support for some of the earlier conceptions of differences between oral and literate cultures in the work of people like Walter Ong, in Orality and Literacy.
My own son has not yet internalized literacy, though I am seeing more and more evidence that he is able to decode words that he encounters in his daily life (as he has now cracked the alphabetic code). Perhaps the best evidence that he has not yet mastered the skill of literacy is the fact that alongside the teeth marks of the fictional Henry, who took a bite out of the book we were reading, are some rather recent teeth marks of my own son, who couldn’t resist taking a nibble of the book. I still have a bit of time before he stops eating books whole.