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.