Monday, October 21, 2013

Why Americans Need to Read More Books

by Julia Buckley

A study done in 2009 by the Endowment for the Arts showed some depressing statistics when it comes to reading, writing, comprehension and general enrichment of both young people in school and adults in the workplace.

This is a terrific resource for
writing well and reading effectively.
The overall message was that Americans were reading far less than they once did.  That young people were spending at least two hours watching television, but only seven minutes reading. The study says that  "The number of adults with bachelor's degreees and 'proficient in reading prose' dropped from 40 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2003."

The study also showed a statistic that has been discussed on this blog before--that people are reading less and buying far fewer books.

Add to those depressing statistics the recent article on The Huffington Post which stated that, based on a HuffPost/yougov poll, 28 percent of Americans did not read a book last year.

That article did have some happy news, including the fact that more respondents had read physical books than e-books in the past week--suggesting that the proclaimed demise of the printed book might not be as imminent as some doomsayers would suggest.

More troubling than the lack of books being purchased, for me, is the fact that young people AND adults are less proficient in reading.  We should all be troubled by that, for many reasons.  It's not just that it would be nice if people were all able to find the joy that reading can provide in an active way (rather than the more passive activities of watching television or playing video games).  It's also that we are living in a time when a lot of people are throwing around a lot of rhetoric--some of it genuinely crazy.  The less people are able to evaluate the nuances of language, the elements of a valid argument, and the logical fallacies that might be used to create a poor argument, the less we as a nation will be able to address our problems in a rational way.

As a teacher, I consistently ask students not just to read, but to reach higher, challenging their minds with text more challenging than their comfort level. I ask them to think of themselves as scholars, rather than to believe that only other people fit that role. I ask them to expand their vocabularies and to play with words, befriending them and realizing their power.

I'm grateful for every J.K Rowling and John Green whose work sends young people to the bookstores in droves. I'm grateful to all writers and readers and people who encourage reading in children who might not otherwise discover books.  I don't think the trends have to be permanent--but I do fear the direction in which they seem to be taking us.


Sheila Connolly said...

What I find troubling is not so much that people don't pick up a book and read, to check it off their to-do list, but that they apparently lack the ability to get lost in a book, to be able to visualize what the author has set down. Call it imagination, if you want. If children don't possess this capability, how can they feel any empathy for others? How can the foresee alternative scenarios?

But is this something that can be taught, or is it innate? I've always been a reader, while my sister has maybe two books in her house, but we had the same upbringing (and the example of our mother who read quite a bit).

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Julia,
I echo your concern. To answer Sheila, there's an emphasis on the solo and the passive in our culture nowadays--TV, DVRs, movies, many video games, etc--while previous generations had more human contact and were more inventive about their entertainment.
Sure, reading is a bit passive, but most authors expect their readers to participate in the creative process. Avid readers use their imaginations to delve deep into books to the extent that their description of settings and characters are rarely the same as what the author imagined.
Also, even YA and middle grade readers are faddish. We all tend to have favorite authors, often to the extreme of resisting new voices. I have found my reviewing activities a good way to force me to find new voices that I like (and, of course, some that I would never read again!).

Julia Buckley said...

Good question, Sheila. I do have students who get SO lost in books that they carry the "forbidden" books into class and try to read them during lectures. We also have a thriving library at our school that sponsors many reading programs and really shows that students, when encouraged, love reading.

BUT I don't know that we are in the majority in terms of how much we interact with students about reading.

I also don't know if imagination is innate--everyone in my family loved reading, but now that my siblings and I are adults, I am the only one who still loves fiction. One brother and sister read non-fiction only (often work-related) and the other two are rather hit-or-miss with reading.

Julia Buckley said...

Steve, that's an interesting point. I do think that the media which have crept to the forefront--tv, games, etc.--can still elicit creativity from young people. My sons are HUGE fans of video games, and they spend more time looking at the screen than they do looking at books.

However, they do read when a book captures their imagination (the trick is getting them to try it), and even the video games and television shows often prompt them to want to be creative in their own ways--sometimes they try to write their own scripts, for example, after seeing a well-written show (or a terrible one, in which case they write satire).

I must also admit that my latest writing project was inspired by a movie that I watched. I think creativity and imagination can come from a lot of places, but I think it's important to keep books as one of those resources so that we don't lose touch with language and text, which are so intrinsic to our communication in any endeavor (and which are so beautiful!)