Reading In America

August 22, 2007 | By | 10 Replies More

In a recent poll, reading in America is revealed to be, well, less than appreciated by large swaths of the population. This ought come as no surprise. We live in a time of stupendous ignorance, which allows for the expression of epic stupidity. The Founding Fathers were suspicious of democracy (I learned this by reading several books on the subject of the early republic), believing that the vast majority of people were incapable of the kind of intellectual comprehension necessary for an informed plebiscite. In short, they knew people were ill-educated and believed this meant they could not parse abstraction. By the mid-19th century, though, reading was probably the most common form of home entertainment.

America has championed the idea of public education. Our publishing companies have been at the forefront of issuing special editions of “Great Books”, and we have turned our economy into a college degree-driven dynamo. Yet the most basic reasons to read seem ignored by most, along with the habit of reading after leaving school.

A few quotes:

“Reading is a basic tool in the living of a good life.” Mortimer Adler

“By reading, we enjoy the dead; by conversation, the living; and by contemplation, ourselves. Reading enriches the memory; conversation polishes wit; and contemplation improves the judgment. Of these, reading is the most important, as it furnishes both the others.” Charels Caleb Colton

“The first time I read an excellent book, it is to me just as if I had gained a new friend; and when I read over a book I have perused before, it resembles the meeting with an old one.” Oliver Goldsmith

“Resolve to edge in a little reading every day, if it is but a single sentence. If you gain fifteen minutes a day, it will make itself felt at the end of the year.” Horace Mann

And finally, a lengthier quote from someone who knows a thing or two about the subject.

“There is no single way to read well, though these is a prime reason why we should read. Information is endlessly available to us; where shall wisdom be found? If you are fortunate, you encounter a particular teacher who can help, yet finally you are alone, going on without further mediation. Reading well is one of the great pleasures solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures. It returns you to otherness, whether in yourself or in friends, or in those who may become friends. Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness. We read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial and passional life.” Harold Bloom

I have been an avid reader virtually all my life. I caught what is known as the Reading Bug around age 10, and ever since there has rarely been a year when I did not read at least thirty books cover to cover, averaging sixty to seventy a year. My senior year of high school I cut most days and spent them in the local public library, where I achieved an enviable (and now inconceivable) rate of a book a day, and tore through most of the so-called Classics that year.

“Why do you always have your face in a book?”

This question was never asked by my parents. My parents, when early on they realized I was reading so much, increased my allowance so I could buy more books (a paperback then was sixty cents). No, this came from “friends” who rarely read, who equated reading with school, which they disliked, and for whom reading had unfortunately become a chore.

I blame the educational system for that. English, as taught in the schools then, had the unfortunate effect of beating a love of reading out of most kids. They could never just have fun with a book, they had to analyze it and “find meaning.” The fact is, meaning is such a individualized thing, it must be discovered individually. Telling someone that what they thought was important about a book is wrong because they do not pick up on the “deeper meanings” of the text is a sure way to turn them off unless they are already dedicated readers. And ridiculing the literature of choice of a student will put the nail in the coffin.

“Why should I learn how to jump through those hoops? This reading stuff is a pain.”

Add to that the simple fact that reading is Not Social, and you have the makings of a functionality illiterate society.

Not illiterate in the sense that they cannot read a sentence, but in the sense that so many people do not know how to access literature.

It takes practice. Learning how to decode the words on the page and make the images in your mind the author hopes you do takes learning. It’s an acquired skill that improves over time and repeated exposure, and those who figure it out become those people who are content to sit alone somewhere with a book.

Is this really important?

Reading enlarges the capacity of the imagination. No other medium does that, with the possible exception of music (but only in certain limited respects). How else does one get to a point where empathy becomes so developed that we can literally understand a person from another culture without having gone through their experiences?

I do not mean understand them as if we had lived their life, but understand the differences and the depth of similarities that hang on those differences.

Movies do the work of the imagination for us. Video games as well.

When asked whether I believe violent movies and television feed violence in society, I have to admit that, yes, I do. But only because there’s nothing between the raw, unformed pysche of the young and the insistent imagery, nothing to mediate, to give context, to offer viable alternatives, and nothing that has aided the development of skeptical buffers. Reading does that. It does it by forcing the mind to do the work of contextualizing, of comprehending meaning. When you read, you are an active participant, engaged in the process of judging, of analyzing, of making sense of the text—and the text itself offers context that is often missing from a visual experience.

I hasten to add here that this is true of all reading, but more true of broad reading. People who basically read the same book over and over again may begin the process of enlarging their imaginations, but then it falters, ill-fed and poorly exercised.

People who read a lot are often more interesting—mainly because they start off by being more interested, by virtue of the worlds they’ve encountered on the page.

Lastly, though, books are the connective tissue of our civilization, past to future. You cannot talk to Ben Franklin in the flesh, but he’s there, in print. Likewise Aristotle, Plato, Cyrano de Bergerac, Twain, Tolkein, all worthy minds who left their vision behind to talk to us. Books are the avatars of their creators, and once opened are fully interactive.

I have no idea how to turn this trend around. Many things conspire to rob us of a literate culture, not least of which is a sheer lack of time. We work longer hours, necessities cost more, there are people around us demanding attention. But it’s a mistake not to see reading as a necessary thing.

Those who are parents might consider easing up on the team sports and the implicit ridicule of always forcing the child to go play with friends. Books are friends. Spending all the time with a book is no better, though, than spending no time with one at all.

I grew up in a house in which it was ordinary to see everyone quietly reading. I’ve been in houses where there wasn’t a single book to be found.

But most importantly, we need to stop asking that reading be defended. “What’ good is it? What use is it?” The use and good of it is self-evident over time, but just reading, at any given moment, should be no more odd than having a conversation with someone—which no one really questions.

Given the recent stupidity expressed in much of our public life these past several years, I think it’s time to advocate reading a bit more. And not just “prescribed” reading. I have a poster on my wall, a picture of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones—yes, the one the magazine was named for—and the quote says “Sit down and read. Prepare yourself for the coming conflict.”


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Category: American Culture, Art, Communication, Culture, Current Events, Education, Entertainment, Language, Media, Psychology Cognition, Reading - Books and Magazines, Statistics, Writing

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (10)

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  1. timbo says:

    The best book I have ever read was "The Power of One" by South African author Bryce Courtenay.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Jason – I was about 8 when I started reading voraciously. I learned to read by reading comic books featuring super heroes. Yes, my sisters had some Archie comic books and I eventually stirred in some "Classics" comic books. But that was how I got started. My parents bought a set of World Book Encyclopedias when I was about 9–I would just pick a letter and page through them, soaking up the facts and figures, viewing the maps and graphs, having a chance to view photos of animals and historical sites. This all must sound so quaint to those who came of age when Broadband was available. To me, though, back in the 1960's, good information (and, yes, bad information!) was harder to come by.

    By the time I was 11 or so, I was picking up some of the Readers' Digest Condensed Books my mother had purchased.

    All of this was good and well, but it was when I was about 17, when I discovered Bertrand Russell, that I realized the incredible subversive power of the written word. Here was someone I had never met and, yes, he was taking time to have a conversation with me. He had taken the time to write clearly and his words packed a wallop. He had challenged me and made me start to think like I had never thought before.

    Your terrific post inspired me to dig up some additional quotes on reading (from my favorite quote site, The Quotations Page ( My favorite is the Thoreau quote:

    From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.

    Groucho Marx (1890 – 1977)

    Education… has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading.

    G. M. Trevelyan (1876 – 1962), English Social History (1942)

    To read a newspaper is to refrain from reading something worthwhile. The first discipline of education must therefore be to refuse resolutely to feed the mind with canned chatter.

    Aleister Crowley (1875 – 1947)

    How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.

    Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862), Walden: Reading, 1854

    Reading is sometimes an ingenious device for avoiding thought.

    Sir Arthur Helps

    Desultory reading is delightful, but to be beneficial, our reading must be carefully directed.

    Seneca (5 BC – 65 AD)

    The reading of all good books is indeed like a conversation with the noblest men of past centuries who were the authors of them, nay a carefully studied conversation, in which they reveal to us none but the best of their thoughts.

    Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650)

    I'm sure we would not have had men on the Moon if it had not been for Wells and Verne and the people who write about this and made people think about it. I'm rather proud of the fact that I know several astronauts who became astronauts through reading my books.

    Arthur C. Clarke (1917 – ), Address to US Congress, 1975

    If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write something worth reading or do things worth the writing.

    Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790)

  3. Xiaogou says:

    Kudos to you Jason. When I was 9 or 10 I was reading the original versions of Jules Verne, and Robin Hood. By the way did you know Robin Hood was murdered in the end? In fact, there was a book club program in school and I used to do chores around the house to get a few quarters to buy a book or two every month. I almost lost my love of reading because the teachers said I had to read from a certain selection of books and I could not find anything interesting. It was a tooth and nail fight. I did not get my love back until a few years later I was put in another class where I was allowed to read anything that interested me.

    One thing that I find rather sad is that we as Americans are not learning another language. It is taught in school, but not really part of our culture. The joke is: “What is a person who speaks three languages? Multilingual. What is a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What is a person who speaks one language? American.” You will find most Americans will agree that is true. Don’t you agree?

  4. Adam says:

    The best book I ever read was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey.

    That being said, I agree that they force reading on kids too much. They should first work to find a book that each kid can respond to and then they will be more willing to read books that they don't like as much.

    I came late to the game of reading (freshman in college) but I read a ton now and once I found what I liked I began to branch out and see what the fuss was about with a lot of the classics. Some of them I still wonder, but a lot of them I appreciated.

    I think it is a bad policy for schools to give kids a reading list for the summer and make them read 5 -10 books off of that list. It then becomes work. Instead, use school time to find what each kid would like to read and then turn them onto those types of books.

  5. Pestilotsi says:

    "Reading is sometimes an ingenious device for avoiding thought."

    Sir Arthur Helps

    There are times that if I couldn't read I could not sleep. I'm the type

    that can't help but overthink when I'm idle. If I'm not busy I'm thinking,

    and if I'm having problems I tend to brood over them.

    Reading is my solace and escape. I'm not suprised at the increase of

    sleeping aids and anti-depressants in our country. Take a break from your "Here and Now", read a good book.

  6. dakila says:

    i came from Philippines, unfortunately americans influence us by using hollywood, that is why we filipinos are now as much as gullible like americans. fortunately for me we were poor in terms of money that why we can't buy 'hollywood' or broadband (until now) we dont even have so much music when i was young (we didnt have much electricity back then) so that leaves us books, wonderful books! now i can live without cable tv, cellphone, as long as i have my books with me, if i dont like the book i have id still read it! i just love books! no i love reading more..

  7. Linden says:

    Robin Hood dying was actually the first event in a book that ever made me cry. Certainly not the last, though. And one overlooked aspect of reading is that if you find the right book anything is interesting. Not textbooks, certainly, but books like The Hot Zone or A Short History of Nearly Everything. Really, who knew that viruses could be so fascinating?

  8. Khaver says:

    Well said. I myself caught the bug around 13, starting with Arthur C Clarke and the novelization of Star Wars. Believe me, it makes a difference. On my encounter with people from the west (I am from a "third world" country) people are surprised at my knowledge and capacity for the English language. Read a book, learn something new.

  9. Tim Hogan says:

    Erich, it's not just reading which provides a context within which our children may gain some understanding of the good and bad of the world.

    I assert our daily example and our willingness to let our children know the world as it is, and what we may dream it to be for them when they inherit may be decisive. I ask my daughter and son who will be "in charge" when I am gone, they say; "I will". I ask them what they want for the world when they are in charge, and tell them its our duty to deliver on the dream, together. I have striven to acknowledge my childrens' contributions to my family and the world, even before they were born.

    I have taken up sharing stories with my children about the dreams they have for their worlds. Each of them puts forward the elements of what they wish their world to be and together we mesh them into tales of their dreams. My daughter is a dragon-riding princess and rules wisely over Dragonland with her husband Prince Eric. My son is a little boy who through hard work, good deeds and honor first becomes a knight and then the king. Perhaps these are too grandiose for reality but, that's not what dreams are about.

    I have taken to heart the old Native American saying; "When the legends die, there are no more dreams. When the dreams are gone, there is no more greatness." I read that in the preface to the book "When the Legends Die" about the story of Tom Black Bull. My childrens' dreams are their greatness, I will not stand in their way. I will guide them as best I may, and let them explore what may make their dreams real.

  10. Ben says:

    For a great read: Lonesome Dove.  Link here.


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