::Literate Blather::
Thursday, November 29, 2007
Essay: Fixing our Reading Problem
It’s easy for me to climb up on my rickety soapbox, point my index finger to the sky, and decry the results of a National Endowment for the Arts study that found that Americans are reading less than ever before.

That’s because I read a lot – about 40 to 50 books a year; mostly novels, but a fair amount of non-fiction, poetry, and even the occasional graphic novel.

I love reading. In fact, I can’t imagine my life without it. I’m always reading a book (and sometime two). My quiet, but voracious addiction to reading gets me in trouble with my wife (especially when I bring home piles of gloriously new tomes). I can’t tell you how many boxes of books are stacked in my basement.

The NEA study called "To Read or Not to Read" (a play on the title to Hemingway’s “To Have or Have Not”?) found:

  • Fifty-two percent of American between 18 and 24 read a book voluntarily in 2002. Down 7 percent since 1992.
  • Money spent buying books dropped 14 percent in the 10 years between 1985 to 2005.
  • Only 31 percent of adults with a bachelor’s degree were proficient in reading prose. Down from 40 percent in 1992.
  • The number of 17-year-olds who never or hardly ever read a book has doubled since the late 1990s.
  • Seventy-two percent of employers found high school graduates “deficient” in writing in English.

NEA chairman Dana Gioia told the Associated Press: “Reading creates people who are more active by any measure. People who don't read, who spend more of their time watching TV or on the Internet, playing video games, seem to be significantly more passive.” She called the decline in reading “perhaps the most important socio-economic issue in the United States.”

It’s easy to blame the Internet, video games, and movies. Our multi-tasking society – filled with too many mobile phones, Blackberries, and PlayStations – makes it difficult to find a quiet hour to sit down in a comfortable chair and read a good book. At least that’s the conventional wisdom.

But that’s not the reality. We do have the time. Movie watching and TV consumption is at all time highs. People spend hours a day browsing the Web and playing video games. The reality is that we have chosen as a society not to read books.

The decline in reading isn’t just a problem for booksellers and authors. It’s a problem for America’s competitive place in the global economy. Reading comprehension and writing skills are crucial skills for corporate and political leadership.

So how do we fix it?

Here’s a radical thought: make reading fun. There’s a reason why teenagers flocked to the Harry Potter novels – they were a blast to read. J.K. Rowling filled her stories with magic, adventure, and fantastic creatures. What’s not to like (unless, of course, you run a Catholic school)?

The problem begins in ninth grade English class when hordes of 13 and 14 year olds are subjected to Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Homer, and Mark Twain. Don’t get me wrong – Dickens and et al are at the dizzying heights of literature, but asking beginners to start at the top is a ridiculous proposition.

When we’re teaching kids to play baseball we don’t throw them on the playing field to test their skills against the 2007 Red Sox. When we’re teaching a child a draw, we start with stick figures and easy shapes and don’t force them to reproduce the Mona Lisa. It is the same with science and mathematics – first the basics and then increase the difficulty.

So is it fair to ask teenagers to read “Moby Dick” or “The Sound and the Fury” in high school?

Of course not.

These works are too challenging – confounding and difficult even for college students and academics (although delightfully worth the effort). The goal of high school English should be to instill a love of reading and writing – and then move on to the more challenging aspects of literature.

Why not start with simpler books – and books that relate more to teenagers and what they’re interested in? How about authors like J.R.R. Tolkien (“Lord of the Rings”) Stephen King (“The Dead Zone”), Margaret Atwood (“A Handmaiden’s Tale”), Orson Scott Card (“Ender’s Game”), John Irving (“A Prayer for Owen Meany”), Jack Kerouac (“On the Road”), and Anne Rice (“The Interview with the Vampire”)?

There are dozens of other authors that write outstanding, contemporary novels that are more accessible to young people. Remember the goal is to get teenagers to enjoy reading first. Once they discover the magic of reading – the absolute delight of it – then we introduce the complexities and challenges of the classics.

Read our essay about mowing the lawn here

Read our essay about the death of newspapers here

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Blogger expatbrian said...
great post and ideas, and thanks for the comment at World Gone Mad

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