From a very early age, educationist Roel van Steensel has enjoyed ‘sitting tucked away somewhere with a book’. His grandmother played an important part in developing his love of reading: “When she was reading to me, she used to purposely make mistakes. She’d expect me to correct her so the story would make sense again.” Van Steensel grew up in a working-class neighbourhood in Tilburg. His mother wasn’t much of a reader. His father’s bookcase was full of detective novels. When Van Steensel switched from children’s to adult literature in his final year of primary school, he started off with his father’s collection. Which is why he still has a soft spot for Agatha Christie’s whodunits.

Roel van Steensel is assistant professor at EUR. His research focuses on the development and socialisation of reading as an activity among children, adolescents and young adults. In addition, he is heading a study into aversion to reading among children. Van Steensel is also endowed professor of Reading Behaviour at VU University Amsterdam.

Reading had a certain prestige within Van Steensel’s circle of friends in secondary school. “Books definitely weren’t considered for nerds. Or perhaps my group of friends were nerds,” he says with a smile. “I remember Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and The Secret History by Donna Tartt being passed around. We were really into those two.” The Secret History is about a group of students who are in thrall of a Classics professor. Van Steensel and his friends also admired a teacher at their school. After obtaining his pre-university education diploma, he even considered studying classical languages. But he was less enthusiastic about having to move from Tilburg to Amsterdam, and ultimately decided to enrol in Linguistics and Culture Studies at Tilburg University.

Reading is done alone

Van Steensel sees reading as an individual experience. “It gives me the opportunity to take a break from my current surroundings and immerse myself in a new world for a while.” He can get so lost in his book that he doesn’t even hear it when his two children ask him something. As a reader, he tends to identify with the protagonist – he is curious to find out how he or she develops. “Not always, though. Some time ago, I was reading Gewassen vlees by Thomas Rosenboom. The protagonist was a nasty fellow. I disliked him so much that I put the book aside, never to reopen it. I simply wasn’t interested in what happened to him next.”

Perlmann’s silence

One book that will always stay with Van Steensel is Perlmann’s Silence by Pascal Mercier. He has even presented this novel, which deftly puts the world of academia into perspective, as a gift during a fellow professor’s inauguration. Mercier writes of a Professor of Linguistics in the autumn of his career who starts to doubt his added value. He does not have any big ideas that could cement his position in the academic community. He’s afraid of being found out as a fraud, and considers a career as a translator of other people’s work.

Van Steensel can identify with the protagonist’s feelings of uncertainty. After obtaining his doctorate he set to work as a postdoc, meaning he had to support and supervise doctoral candidates. “There were moments when I remember thinking: ‘I have to do something else’. Similar to the hero in the book, I considered translating other people’s work rather than shaping my own ideas.” He has since learned that science isn’t solely dependent on big ideas. He’s become more receptive to the simple pleasures of straightforward research. And his position as endowed professor of Reading Behaviour at VU University Amsterdam has contributed to this awareness. “That appointment was a boost to my confidence. When you’re a professor, people see you as a professor. Other people showed confidence in me, and as a result I gained more confidence in myself too.”

Reading behaviour

Key motive for reading: To relax

Books read per year: 15-20

Favourite genre: Novels, including historical novels

Last-read book: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Writing a mystery novel

Pascal Mercier was a Professor of Philosophy himself, and wrote Perlmann’s Silence during a sabbatical. As an author, he did not so much find his voice in science as in writing fiction. This isn’t something Van Steensel aspires to. Not yet, at any rate. “Right now, I don’t feel the urgent need to write a novel. But I do like puzzles. And performing research can be like laying a puzzle. I occasionally say to my wife that after retirement I’d like to start on a new type of puzzle: writing a mystery novel.”

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