Anne-Marie Körling was recently appointed Sweden’s Ambassador for Reading 2015-2017. Who is she and what are her thoughts on her new post?
Tell us about yourself and your background. Who is Anne-Marie Körling?
I am a teacher, author, and lecturer. I like to play with words. I keep both feet planted firmly on the word “floor”; the floor is where I develop ideas about new paths in teaching and learning. I have always been a voracious reader. The library has been and remains an important place for me. As a child it was where I learned the meaning of democracy: in a space that collected books and people, where a librarian’s democratic gesture opened up the world on a bookshelf where I could read anything and everything that struck my fancy.
I am a passionate and inquisitive person. I come from a family of musicians and storytellers. Music has taught me to listen carefully, to dare to dwell in an experience without needing to understand or explain it right away. I like sounds that strike a chord inside me. That’s how narratives work for me. They strike a chord. I believe in having the courage to not understand right away. I rarely think that I fully understand what I am reading. There is always something you can discover in a new way or come to new insight about with the passage of time. I re-read things all the time. I have talked about this and advocated it it as a reader and an author. I started reading child psychology when I was 13 years old, but even after meeting children both in literature and in real life, exploring the way they learn is still an adventure. Children aren’t projects. They try to do as we want and as we do. If we see them not reading, we can dare to take this as a reflection of our own reading and take a good look at our own reading habits.
I have been recognized for my work as a teacher of language and literature. I received the Swedish Academy’s prize for Swedish language teachers in 2006, a Microsoft Innovative Educator Award in 2007, and a Diploma of Honor from the Swedish Council of the International Reading Association (SCIRA) in 2013 for my work with children and young adults on reading-related issues.
Your work on reading promotion is very wide-ranging. What part of it is the most fun?
Literature has always been so important for me: for learning, for mirroring myself, for community. I’ve never wondered what I get out of reading. It is just part of my life. Sometimes books lift me out of a kind of loneliness. Other times I get completely immersed in an expedition to a place I never would have gone if not for the book. When I read I also find that books talk to each other, and that interests me. Reading is like peering into a strange world and listening to people in other times and circumstances. This makes me curious about how young people read, and what makes them read or not read.
My favorite thing is to meet young people who think that books are boring and reading has nothing to offer them. The challenge is to not try to teach too much. Instead I try to be curious. How can I let the literature do the work, and just have them listen for a while? I pick a passage from a book that I read—I take a lot of care with this. Afterwards we talk, usually about the contents of the book. It’s like my chance to hint at all the things out there to read and listen to. When they ask if I can read a little more, I know they’ve made contact with the text. It’s important to tread gently. Not be a reader who immediately starts telling the non-reader everything they’re missing. Readers should listen carefully to non-readers. Reading something out loud that lies beyond they can read for themselves shows them what they have to look forward to as readers.
What are your thoughts your new post?
I just got the job, so the adventure of developing its content still lies ahead of me! But literacy issues are something I will never abandon. I believe in generosity and participation. The conversation about reading and the meaning of reading is usually one we readers hold among ourselves. When we meet non-readers, we try to convince them that reading is useful and meaningful. I want to help foster more generosity across the boundary between readers and people who haven’t yet discovered what reading can mean. I would like to see us develop a custom of reading aloud for 90 seconds in workplaces, at the start of class, in all kinds of situations where we take part in joint activities. Someone might listen at work and get inspired to start reading out loud themselves at home. We need to invite authors into our conference rooms and classrooms. Ninety seconds is enough to create focus, to listen collectively. For the sake of creativity, language, community. We can learn to listen together if we have something to listen to. In less than 90 seconds we can be in a new place, seeing the world through different eyes, gathering ideas and language about things we knew nothing about just a minute ago.
What do you think will be your greatest challenge as Reading Ambassador? Which questions are most important to examine?
Questions concerning literacy and illiteracy. Knowing how to read but not liking it. Not knowing how to read and maybe feeling that because your schooldays are almost over, you’ll never have the chance to learn. Identity is critical: identifying as a reader so you can be part of the community. Throughout my years of teaching I have had the privilege of speaking with students who can’t read. They develop strategies to hide it. But when they are faced with the reality of leaving school, the issue becomes what live will be if they can’t read. Reading is a glue that holds society together. Almost everything is available to read—for those who are able. For those who aren’t, the world is mute. Literacy is a democratic issue. Not being able to participate in written language is incompatible with democracy.
Also important: to consider how every text requires that our reading ability be renewed, that it constantly evolve. Getting the chance to learn how to learn to read, and learning that sometimes you have to work with a narrative before it reveals its contents. Re-learning, and having the opportunity to do so.
That texts evolve and have many levels. That text, imagery, and music in language comprise an aesthetic experience. That we don’t focus solely on utility, but also on the passion, curiosity, and creativity that reading engenders. That we’ll never understand everything we read, but it still doesn’t stop us from reading. And I’d like to push for re-reading books, maybe even more than once. Returning to books. Reading to plumb the depths of a text. It’s a challenge in our day and age. We’re always rushing to get to the future.