Reading On The Rise

February 10, 2009 | By | 7 Replies More

According to this report, reading is on the rise in America for the first time in a quarter century.  It’s difficult for me to express how pleased this makes me.

Civilization and its discontents have been in the back of my mind since I became aware of how little reading most people do.  To go into a house—a nice house,well-furnished, a place of some affluence—and see no books at all has always given me a chill, especially if there are children in the house.  Over the last 30 years, since I’ve been paying attention to the issue, I’ve found a bewildering array of excuses among people across all walks of life as to why they never read.  I can understand fatigue, certainly—it is easier to just flip on the tube and veg out to canned dramas—but in many of these instances, reading has simply never been important.  To someone for whom reading has been the great salvation, this is simply baffling.

Reading, I believe, is the best way we have to gain access to the world short of physically immersing ourselves in different places and cultures.  Even for those who have the opportunity and resource to travel that extensively, reading provides a necessary background for the many places that will be otherwise inaccessibly alien to our sensibilities.

A book is a significant encoding of someone’s mind.  A life, if you will, which is why I tend to see book-burning as a form of homicide (euphemistically, mind you, but that’s about how strongly I feel about it).  When you read a book—and in this instance I mean a book of fiction or memoir or essay, something written in response to a desire or need to communicate something of the self (as opposed to instruction manuals or the like)—and comprehend what is there, you are sharing something profound with another human being whom you may never—can never, sometimes—meet.  The characters live when you let them, they walk around in the imagination, they show you things and take you places and teach.

Oh, yes, they teach.  They give us the opportunity to know different kinds of human being, in different ways, and while we might not embrace those ways or people or wish to emulate them, we can know them.  Deep reading opens the world for us.

Movies and television do not do this.  Not that they can’t, mind you, but because we are passive receptors to what passes pre-digested before us, our participation—our active interrogation of the text, if you will—is barely brought into play.  Where in reading we must participate by “decoding” what is on the page and partner with the author is bringing the images to life in our own imaginations, film does all that for us.

For those who are deeply read or deeply sensitive, what can be derived from film and theater can certainly be rich in its own way, but I have found over time that those who read as much as they watch have richer reactions to what passes on the screen, have better conversations about what they have just seen, have more to bring to the piece than those who do not read.

Reading builds intellectual muscle in ways that cannot be done by other media.

This is, perhaps, mere personal prejudice, but I think not.  I think the broad, multifaceted internal lives developed by the habit of reading over time makes us better able to understand more of the world around us.

Granted, one could spend one’s life reading nothing but one kind of thing, being stuck in a rut with a single strand of literature, and thus trapping the very process which reading ought to enable…

But to not read at all seems to me a self impoverishment.  A tragedy.

So for me this NEA report is nothing but excellent news. For the first time as a reader and writer and an advocate of reading, I am hopeful that I will not be continually in a shrinking minority.

It’s a good day.


Category: American Culture, Art, Communication, Culture, Education, Noteworthy, 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.

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  1. The Book Pilgrim | Reading Rainbow | August 4, 2009
  1. "There are advantages in reading the odd book"

    Brian Sewell, 2004-10-18.

  2. Tim Hogan says:

    My 10 year old daughter has a favorite author! Too cool! We read her books aloud at bedtime and have a blast. My son doesn't like reading as much but, is very computer lterate (he shows me what to do sometimes!). Read on!

  3. Erich Vieth says:


    Here are some startling statistics regarding reading (I found them here):

    1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.

    42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.

    80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.

    70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

    Each day in the U.S., people spend 4 hours watching TV, 3 hours listening to the radio and 14 minutes reading magazines.

    I have to chuckle when I hear so many people complaining that many Americans are not "ready" for the digital TV switch-over. I'm suspecting that many people just don't care enough about TV to switch over to digital. Maybe they are planning to read more. They'd certainly be better off in the long run.

    My ten-year old daughter has begun to inhale books. I find her curled up in a corner, sometimes laughing out loud. The rest of us read too. My wife often reads aloud to my two daughters, who become mesmerized with the stories. I think back to the many hours I used to spend reading out loud to my daughters. One of the most moving books I read for them is a short book called "The Gardner," by Sarah Stewart and David Small. It's just bursting with emotion.

    There's something special about reading. I'm amazed that writers always write at the same speed at which I read. If the book is difficult and I need to take it slowly, the author slows down for me!

    Who could have suspected that little squiggles on a page could pack such meaning and emotional intensity. If only the person who first carved a symbolic character into a chunk of stone could be transported to the present to see what reading has become.

  4. Kenny Celican says:

    On reading the line about not seeing any books at all, I thought to myself 'whoa, I don't think you'd see any at my house – our master bedroom doubles as a library, and our kids bedroom has shelves for their story-time books, and I'm doubting you'd be getting into the bedrooms any time soon'.

    Then I laughed at myself. There are two bookcases in the dining room, because we couldn't fit them all in the bedrooms. There are piles of books that wouldn't fit in any of the bookcases lying around on the desks in the dining room (because we need desks and bookcases, we don't need a dining room table).

    But, mentally, those books don't count; when you sleep surrounded by a solid wall (two deep) of a few thousand books, with your alarm clock precariously balanced on the edge of a shelf, two bookcases half full of knicknacks (so only half full of books) and two stacks on the desk just dont register.

    Y'know, now that I think about it, there aren't any rooms in the house without a book or two…

  5. Mark,

    What great news from the NEA. I think you've really hit the nail on the head about how reading can open doors. It's encouraging to see some positive statistics on American literacy for a change. I've understood the magic of a book for as long as I can remember, and I had the chance to watch my sister discover the power of a story as she grew up There is simply nothing like it. I sincerely hope that this NEA study is the first step in a trend to greater literacy – one can only hope that with a political leader who seems to embrace the intellectual lifestyle, the American culture will once again find itself motivated and inspired by the written word.

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