Who is Reading What and Why

The latest NEA report, To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence
is generating a lot of head scratching, soul searching, dismay, rejection, and more. But not by me. As much as I love books and love to read I also feel that neither are necessary to lead a complete and full life. I spent a couple of years in Sierra Leone where many still go through life getting their stories and information from other sources than textual ones. They live rich spiritual, and significant lives — without books, without reading. Of course, reading is helpful — I see the need for functional literacy. But the idea that if you don’t read books in your leisure time there is something scarily wrong — well, I’m not frightened at all.

I have a grand time with my 4th graders with books and reading. But study after study (this isn’t the first) indicate that reading falls off for kids as they move past me, up through middle school and beyond. My impression is that this is not simply because they are saddled with school reading they dislike or because too much homework keeps them from leisure reading. I think it is also because they are getting their stories in other ways and through other media. I’m struck by my almost-twenty-year-old nephew who was a voracious reader for many years. Now, in college, he tells me he has no time for leisure reading. My impression after watching him over the Thanksgiving weekend was that his leisure time is otherwise used, mostly online and from television . So he reads and takes in information and stories, just not so much from books. Perhaps he will return to leisure book reading at another point in his life. He is a good reader. But he is not reading books right now.

What turns someone on to reading or off to reading is almost impossible for me to predict. I try to balance opportunities for my students to chose their own books with my introducing them to books that I think are wonderful and that they then get excited about too. That is, I model for them a passion for reading that draws them in. But that certainly is no guarantee that they will fall into a lifelong love for book reading.

In yesterday’s New York Times Mokoto Rich explored the issue in “A Good Mystery: Why We Read.” In the article she mentioned Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader (see my post on it) and another book I liked a great deal, Francis Spufford’s The Child that Books Built. What I appreciate about both writers is they give us two very different individuals and their very different paths to avid book reading. Certainly adults can do things that turn young people off to books, but I don’t think we can do any one thing that will turn all the young people we encounter on to books. The issue is so complex, so multifaceted, so not simple.

3 Comments

Filed under Reading

3 responses to “Who is Reading What and Why

  1. I think it’s also worth asking to what extent creating that life is our job as English teachers. After all, an art teacher does not expect that every child will become a potter, or a math teacher that every child will do math puzzles for fun; rather, we hope that every child will feel confidence in his or her ability to use those skills, will find joy in those tasks when they arise in his or her life, and will be exposed to the life of a serious artist or mathematician well enough that some of the children will choose to live it. If all of my students turned out like your nephew, and some of them also become serious readers of literature for their own purposes, I will feel successful.

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  2. Ah, for my part, I comfort myself with C. S. Lewis’s speaking once of one’s passions being “minority enthusiasms.” Much as I love to read — no, more than that, depend on daily reading for sustenance, I do know loads of perfectly wonderful and genuinely happy people who don’t read except for utility. And we can make a disstinction between those who spend hours in front of a TV or game from those who as Springsteen said “come home from work and wash up/And go racing in the street.” Heck, those guys would probably pity me for my quiet home life, sitting and reading. So, who’s to say?
    BUT — we CAN say that as educators, you and me and the rest of us folks in schools, we do have the mission to at least expose these children while they’re with us to the possibilities of reading (or of listening: a guy can tinker on his cycle in the basement and listen to an audio book), but know that not too many of them will grow up to be readers, and even fewer to be literary readers. But our role is to put it before them as well as we can, while we can!
    By th3way, I was a a reading conference a couple of years ago at a boys private school ,and one of the panelists was someone from the reading commission speaking about the last report. And three of the esteemed men on the panel said that while child readers, they had ceased reading by high school and only picked it up again later.
    So thanks to you and to the commission.

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  3. That is absolutely appalling to me. My peers are most of those statistics. I don’t claim to be a genius, but most high schoolers (in my city) don’t even try. To think that the United States holds 60% of the world’s wealth, but has low reading levels, is really scary.

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