Is Reading Doomed?

Educator Michael Skube pushes the familiar complaint that “kids don’t read for pleasure” any more – Writing Off Reading in today’s Washington Post (via TeleRead). While characteristically anecdotal, articles like these frankly scare me.
David Rothman ties this in to his plea to libraries not to divert book acquisition budgets to video in a major way, and I’m sympathetic to his argument. As a parent of two young boys, I really worry about the precipitous decline in pleasure reading after age 8 that has been documented as largely a boy issue.
But I’m not sure what the real picture is. I’m just guessing that a drop off in reading (and other solo entertainments) as kids get older and take on more independence and do more social activities (including video watching) is not an entirely new phenomenon. So does the U.S. really have fewer readers than in the past? Are there really lower levels of advanced literacy, or is our much higher percentage of college attendance skewing the historical perspective? In the 65 years since 1940 the U.S. has gone from less than 10% of the population having some college education to over 50% – by definition college students are no longer an “elite”. And it’s arguable that all the IM’ing and MySpace’ing is increasing literacy among students, vs. the hours-long phone calls of recent generations. Is the increase in video lending by libraries coming at the expense of book circulations, or are they primarily just a tax-subsidized alternative to Blockbuster, which in turn is competing with movie theaters, not reading? Hard data on these points appears to be scarce.
My oldest son recently turned 9 so after all these posts I had to run and check his room. J.R.R. Tolkien, Brian Jacques, and Cornelia Funke may not be Booker Prize winners but I was frankly relieved to see their works strewn out on his bed. It’s equally anecdotal but as long as he and his friends keep reading for pleasure – and well above any preconceived notion of “grade level” – I can’t help but remain somewhat positive about the future of reading. And while digital texts may not change the fundamental options competing for Jackson’s time (and I feel a bit guilty for having watched Raiders of the Lost Ark with him last night), they might at least help keep his bedroom a bit neater…

6 Responses to Is Reading Doomed?

  1. Kim C. says:

    Interesting article, although I’m not sure I agree 100%. The success of writers like J.K. Rowling at least hold out some hope that kids who grew up with Harry Potter will carry their love of the written word into their later teen years. Still, in our school district we’re taking steps to promote reading not just as an exercise required to get a grade, but as something that has inherent value all by itself. That includes a book club that will be powered by Breeze discussion rooms and book blogs, and some projects that will allow students to check out iPod Shuffles with audio books from the school library. Still, as your reference points out, the biggest determinant is whether or not the parents read in the home. I suspect your son, like my daughter, has grown up in a home where reading is a valued activity. Sad that too many kids today don’t see that at home.

  2. Mike Perry says:

    Could the unusual (in a historic sense) movie tastes of today’s younger boys have something to do with this decline in reading in boys after eight?
    Historically, boys have enjoyed adventure stories such as Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, Flash Gordon, and tales of cowboys. These are stories where your taste can grow as you grow up. The adventures we read become more sophisticated and expand into history, biography, business risk-taking, and scientific research.
    But judging by my friends’ kids, quite a few of today’s boys have been seduced by expensive movie special effects, as well as massive (and lucrative) advertising campaigns for spin-off products into an entertainment genre that doesn’t scale well into adulthood.
    Batman, Spiderman and the like simply don’t have counterparts in the real world. Batman has lots of money, but where it comes from is left unsaid. Spiderman is the result of an experiment gone wrong, but his stories don’t connect well with science.
    In short, these “superheroes” do things no normal human can do, so when a kid grows old enough to realize that, his heroes loose their meaning and a story becomes something he thinks he has outgrown. He can’t scale their stories into something more mature in the same sense that Treasure Island can grow into an interest in reading books about travel, exploration or sailing.
    That would also explain why the stories that are popular with today’s young, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, have a magic component that lets them bridge the gap to more traditional adventure literature and reading in general.
    It’s something to think about.
    –Michael W. Perry, Untangling Tolkien (the only book-length, day by day chronology of LOTR)

  3. Bill McCoy says:

    Re: superheroes vs. “Tom Sawyer” type Everyman heroes. Well, I have to say that I don’t buy your thesis. Since Homer, Beowulf, and Le Morte d’Arthur heroes of literature have always been doing magical things beyond the scope of normal human activity. This appeals to an “I’m unique!” voice deep inside us. I see the Batmobile and the Sword in the Stone and for that matter Tom and Huck’s raft as much of a muchness.
    A related thing I am concerned about is the effect of ultra realistic animation and special effects on a child’s “minds eye” imagination. If movies and games can make magic look completely and utterly real, then is reading and the work of imagining magic (whether it be Homeric or Harry Potter) going to be viewed as too much work?

  4. Bob Russell says:

    I can think of three major factors affecting how much kids will want to read, and I think any failures in these areas could doom them with respect to reading:
    1) Skill level:
    Children and adults who are not skilled or experienced at reading books will find it too hard to do, and it becomes not worth the effort. I think we all need either a compelling interest that pushes us into lots of reading, or we need to be required and encouraged to read, and helped to understand. It was a combination of school and my hobbies that pushed me into books. My parents even helped in creating the settings for me to have time to read. Like “no more TV” rules or having a place I could read without being distracted. I wonder if something like a family reading time could even work, where people get together in a den to each read their own books? (Caveat… I have no kids, so I don’t know if this is practical or not!) But one way or another, if you don’t learn how to read, it won’t be worth the effort, and you won’t learn to read if you don’t do a lot of it.
    2) Finding the right books:
    Look how much reading was done when the Harry Potter books came out! If kids find the right books to fit their interests and reading level, they will be more interested in reading. (And I don’t mean just picking the ones that we adults liked when we were kids!)
    3) Distractions:
    Let’s face it. Certain forms of entertainment are more fun and easy. But not necessarily more fulfilling or better. Video games and videos are “easy” entertainment and can be addictive. If someone is tired, he’s gravitate to easy entertainment. If I’m really tired or worn out from work, I don’t go to a book either. If there’s a video I’ve been wanting to watch, I probably won’t go to a book. If I’ve taped a good TV show, I probably won’t go to a book. I love to read, but that’s still the way it works. If something else like that is on my mind, I don’t choose the book.
    But if there’s a reason to read the book. Maybe I’ve been encouraged to read it by a friend, or I’m in the middle of a book and can’t wait to see what happens next, or I’m looking for a quiet time away from distractions, or I want to discuss what’s in the book, or I need to know something in the book, etc
    I could go on more about how to create reading-encouraging settings, but I’m sure everyone gets the idea and can come up with their own thoughts.
    My bottom line is that people, whether adult or child, need to develop reading skills and learn how to pick books they like (and learn how to id and stop reading books they don’t like, and skim books that they only want to get certain info from, and read boring parts faster, etc.) They need to have a desire to read what’s in the book, and they need to be able to create a quiet setting that doesn’t have the pull of other entertainment or distractions.
    If a person fails to address any of those things, reading is doomed in their life until there is some book like Harry Potter or a manual or a self-help or business book that just can’t be passed up.
    I’ve never heard anyone else view reading this way before (possibly because I’ve missed all the others saying this), so maybe I’m way off base. But it seems reasonable to me at least.
    Great blog, by the way, Bill!

  5. Mike Perry says:

    Homer, Beowulf, Morte d’Arthur? All were heroes in a age of oral traditions. Then the great majority of people didn’t read and thus couldn’t have their desire to continue to read harmed by a literary interest that couldn’t grow. Those who heard Beowulf around a campfire also heard other tales that, alas, are forever lost to us.
    Also remember that none of those tales needed to be outgrown. Their characters may have been favored (or opposed) by the gods, and they may have used magical instruments (chiefly swords), but they were not superheros in the modern sense with powers of their own. They succeed or fail by their character and courage. That is a universal message.
    Most important of all, the gap between the Odyssey or Beowulf and adult literature didn’t exist. Their literature was the adult literature of the day, and their worldview was the adult worldview. It is only in modern times that we’ve come to regard them as literature to be read by children in schools. Within living memory, they were routinely studied in their original languages as college literature. And they still are treated as such by those wanting to specialize in Greek or Old English.
    It’s the utter childishness (or more accurately, small boyishness) of present-day superheros that bothers me. It reinforces a world view about omnipotence and invulnerably that’s present only briefly, and when that developmental stage passes, these boys have difficulty adjusting to more ordinary tales. That was my previous point.
    And I’d agree fully with you that ultra realistic animation makes imagining a tale too easy for children and that perhaps makes it harder for them (or at least for boys) to move on to written literature where the imagination has to be in your mind’s eye.
    That’s why, before the Tolkien films came out, I tried to tell everyone I knew to read the books before seeing the movie. Reverse the process, and they will view the book with images from the movie. They will, in some sense, never be able to capture a Tolkien-like image and be trapped in a Tolkien-Jackon synthesis.
    And I’d also agree with those who stress that to love to read, kids need to be read to and to see their parents reading. And for little boys, that means having a daddy who reads to them and who reads for his own pleasure. Not having that, boys are drawn to more flashy entertainment, such as video games.
    Finally, although I’m in no position to know for sure, there seems to be a dearth of modern books that appeal to boys in late childhood and early adolescent like the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift Jr. books did when I was young. It does seem that for boys that literature isn’t getting replaced to the same degree that there’s is a new generation of girl’s literature. And the result may be a dreadful catch-22. No good books means boys don’t read which inhibits the sales of new books. The result is also a boy culture that talks about hot new games but not ‘must read’ books.
    Also, it seems that politically correct experts, while permitting books that appeal only to girls, sneer at books that would appeal almost exclusively to boys. In school, they insist on forcing on boys politically correct books where Susie rescues a frightened and weepy John. That is bad. Boys have a certain bent on looking at the world. They can regard girls as in need of help and rescue or as things to be exploited (esp. sexually) and abandoned, but most will refuse to see themselves as the helpless pawns of powerful girls/women. That’s a game in real life or in literature that they will not play.
    Incidentally, my own explanation for why women play minor (although important) roles in The Lord of the Rings flows from the fact that, as Tolkien noted, William Morris’ tales provided the model for Tolkien. And in some William Morris tales, the men do seem less than the sorts of men I described above. His heroes seem unable to enter an enchanted wood without encountering a lovely maiden or two. But these men also have a disturbing tendency to end up being tools of the women, of taking up their quests, of fighting their wars. They are more overgrown ‘Boy-toys’ than men.
    I’ve published the four Morris tales that are most like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I published The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains as More to William Morris (warrior tales) as well as The Well at the World’s End and The Wood Beyond the World as On the Lines of William Morris (quest tales). All share that characteristic. The women characters are more capable and stronger willed than the men, who seem to lose what sense they have in the presence of a pretty face. Tolkien rejected that point of view. Aragorn waits 68 years before he marries Arwen. His men are quite happy to traipse through their enchanted woods bent on their own goals without female company.
    Like a number of others, I think our society is horribly shortchanging our boys and the result, when they grow up, may be costly.
    –Michael W. Perry, Untangling Tolkien

  6. Mike Perry says:

    Unknown to me, James Bowman seems to have been thinking along similar lines about the impact of literary superheroes in an August 11, 2006 article in the Wall Street Journal, available here:
    Note these remarks:

    It’s all a lot of fun, I suppose, but the more we indulge our appetite for the cultural junk food of the superheroic, the harder it becomes to digest the real thing. This is especially true for children, for whom this diet has been primarily designed. The pre-eminent childhood hero now is Harry Potter — to all intents and purposes another superhero. Kids have come to crave the sugar-buzz of superheroism to the point where, if they encounter ordinary heroism (if that’s not an oxymoron) in old books, it must seem bland and unexciting.
    Can it be entirely coincidental that adults, too, have had their appetite for the heroic spoiled? Both of this year’s big 9/11 movies, for instance — Paul Greengrass’s United 93 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center — have played down the real and undoubted heroism of some of their characters in order to emphasize the passive suffering of others.
    On the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, we know the names — Todd Beamer, Jeremy Glick, Thomas Burnett and Mark Bingham — of at least four of the men who led the passengers’ revolt against the hijackers, but Mr. Greengrass doesn’t mention them. Nor does he show them as being especially distinguished for their heroism.
    This reticence, we know, was in deference to the wishes of the victims’ families, who cooperated with the filmmakers on the understanding that, as the coordinator of Pennsylvania’s Sept. 11 victim-assistance program told the Washington Post in 2002, “we feel we have forty heroes, and not just four.” Why? Because all forty suffered and died.
    Real heroism, for us, is scarcely conceivable apart from victimhood. That’s why, in Mr. Stone’s film too, almost all the attention is on the two Port Authority policemen, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), not their rescuers. McLoughlin and Jimeno spend most of the movie pinned helplessly beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center, while their families are waiting, equally helplessly, for news of them.
    We may begin to suspect that American movie audiences scarcely know what the old-fashioned hero even looks like anymore, the sort who dares greatly and succeeds by mastering his enemies. On the rare occasions when we have seen one, as in last year’s boxing movie Cinderella Man, he has been a box-office disappointment.
    Old-time heroes like Wyatt Earp or Davy Crockett may not have been all that we would now wish them to be, but they did have one big thing going for them that the superheroes don’t. Their undoubted bravery, resolution and fortitude in the midst of real dangers made them examples for us to emulate, not just fantasy figures to admire.

    Note that he goes a step further, arguing that as a society we’re losing the ability to imagine the heroic in real life. Particularly notice how so many Americans can no longer distinguish a hero who does something from a victim who merely suffers passively. Historically, real heroism has been regarded as utterly different from passivity. Recall John Henry in his battle with a machine or Rule Britannia, with its line “Englishmen will never be slaves.” Historic heroism was distinguished by a refusal to suffer passively, to die rather than be a victim. How far we have come.
    And Europe seems to have come even further. Everytime I hear of us (or at least some of us) here called cowboys, I recall the classic Western, “High Noon,” where one man stands alone against four gunslingers because he refuses to run. Running now, he tells his Quaker wife, means we will be running for the rest of our lives. Running from terrorist bombs, running from a nuclear Iran, running, running, running. Eventually, you can run no further.
    Personally, I’d blame much of this on our decided unheroic ‘chattering classes,’ and their unwillingness to portray a virtue they are unwilling to practice–witnessed perhaps best of all by the terrorist-pleasing news coverage from the Middle East. It’s actually quite easy to ‘win’ the right to present accurate coverage from a terror-filled region or a brutal dictatorship. You simply tell the bad guys, “If you don’t like the bad news we cover working in you midst, you’ll really hate the sort of coverage you’ll get when we pull our people out and cover (accurately) the story from the outside.” But that would require that courage and integrity be displayed by people who aren’t bulletproof and who can’t fly like a plane, people who typically play the victim when criticized.
    I can remember a few years ago seeing a group of small boys playing superhero (actually Rambo). They seem to think their foes would drop like flies while they were unharmed by all the flying bullets. I tried to tell them the real world wasn’t like that. It’s much more like the old Coast Guard motto that when it’s stormy and someone is in trouble on the sea, “you have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.”
    –Mike Perry, Inkling Books, Seattle
    P.S. In the aftermath of WWI, C. S. Lewis, who fought and almost died in its trenches, warned of this trend, describing it as the development of ‘chestless men.’ Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten where I read that remark. His point was that to be whole, we need a chest with virtues such as courage to join together our emotions, typlified by our bowels, and our intellect, typlified by our heads.