Why don’t we read more?

October 12, 2011 § 32 Comments

Reading needs to go through some rebranding.  People think about reading as work or an obligation or something people do because that’s what cultured people do.  It’s not thought of as an opportunity for escape or relaxation.”But wait,” you say.  “There isn’t enough time to read.  Life is just too busy.” My answer is invariably: that’s the kind of thing you tell your spouse when they mention the house is getting dirty or your teacher when they’ve assigned an undue amount of homework.  According to Nielsen Research the average American watches 34 hours of TV a week.  That’s almost five hours a day, and practically the amount of time spent at a full time job. Something tells me the average American isn’t reading 34 hours a week.  The average American isn’t even reading daily.

So why isn’t reading as popular as these other mediums of entertainment, and why is it declining?  Perhaps I’m biased, but I don’t think it’s because reading is an inferior form of entertainment to television, film, or video games.  I don’t want to demonize any of those things; I enjoy them all and–more importantly–I don’t think the best way to convince people to read is telling them how terrible their other hobbies are. I just wish I could get the point across that reading has whole worlds to explore, and characters whose heads you can get inside of, and literally endless hours of enjoyment. I’ve fallen victim to this negative view of reading myself.  I love to read and grew up doing a ton of it, but for some reason I can only think of one or two books I ever enjoyed that were required reading for English classes, despite there being some great books in the mix.  Somehow my favorite hobby was turned into a chore.  Is it just because I was a teenager and didn’t like being told do things, even if they were things I usually enjoyed?  Maybe, but I don’t know if that’s an excuse.  Of all the things that I think we should be teaching kids about reading in school, I think the most important message should be that reading is fun.  It’s a great escape and a great opportunity for adventure.  To me, reading classics should take a back seat to this.  That probably sounds like blasphemy to some people, but I think it’s more important for kids to develop good reading skills than it is for them to be able to quote Shakespeare and explain the themes of A Tale of Two Cities, and those reading skills are best developed when kids are practicing their reading skills regularly outside of school in addition to in it.

How do we carry over the excitement from a phenomenon like Harry Potter or Twilight or The Help for that matter to all the other books?  How do we wave a banner and say “Hey, look over here.  There are other books in the library.”  Why are people reading less?  Why doesn’t reading (generally) engender as much excitement as other forms of entertainment? When people do get excited about reading, what inhibits that excitement from transcending a book or series to reading as a whole? What can we do better to get people of all ages more excited about reading?  What have you seen that’s worked, what hasn’t, and what would you like to see tried?


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§ 32 Responses to Why don’t we read more?

  • Adam says:

    You hit it on the head when talking about books that you had to read for school. Most of the books taught in schools are ‘classics’ that aren’t relevant to life today, and because of this I think many students are turned off from reading. I would love to see schools do more to teach books that students would actually be interested in reading. Teach Harry Potter in school, teach The Hunger Games, find books that kids like. Don’t make high school kids sit through Shakespeare every year (I hated Shakespeare but every year in high school English we had to go over one of his plays).

    Any book that is well written can be analyzed in the same manner that people are used to doing for the ‘classic’ books that have been taught in schools for years. It really just comes down to teachers needing to remake the curriculum to include books that are relevant and interesting to students in today’s world.

  • I was wondering how the average person can be watching five hours of tv a day. Anyway, you bring up an interesting point with when that love of reading kind of fades. I have always loved it, but maybe my experience is a little different. I take the bus to and from work, so I pass that time by reading. I’m reading five days a week, which is nice.
    There were some of those required reading books that I absolutely hated (Great Expectations and My Antonia come readily to mind) and others I came to really enjoy, like Huck Finn, because my teachers found ways to make them interesting, usually by pointing out little things or bits of humor. What killed some of that fun in the required reading was analyzing books to death through annotation and explicating passages. There are times when you need a little push to figure out what’s going on, but a lot of the magic is lost when you analyze down to the small details. I don’t know that the classics should be taken out completely, just re-evaluated to find out which ones students generally prefer or would rather read.
    What could help generate interest in reading again? Maybe a story time for teens and adults. How many people would still love to be read to?
    Great post!

    • R. H. Culp says:

      When I read the five hour stat I had the same reaction. I checked and double-checked before I finally posted it. I read an analyst who said it’s skewed by a larger than normal unemployed population that is watching a ton of TV right now, but even without that, it’s been rising steadily for as far back as I could find the data.

    • Rachel says:

      That’s it, exactly! Having to analyze the books to death, it just kills the fun of enjoying a good book. I LOVE to read, and if I’m on a fiction kick, I can manage several a week. But the last time I remember enjoying a book in school was in seventh grade. That’s only because I had already read Tom Sawyer.

      I always referred to it as dissecting the books (similar to what we did to frogs in biology). The over-analyzing of book details ruined everything from Jacob Have I Loved and The Call of the Wild to Shakespeare and 1984. Ok, maybe I would’ve hated them anyway.

      But I remember loving Shakespeare, when I was in drama class, because not only were we studying the comedies, but our teacher explained what everything meant, and we sometimes watched the movies, to get a better understanding of the interactions.

      I think after elementary schools have reading out loud to kids, they should require the kids read a new book every week, but let it be their choice. And make it exciting for them to come into class and either TELL the class why they enjoyed it, or write about why they liked it. No analyzing, just enjoying it!

      Reading is fun, and everyone should know it! : )

      • R. H. Culp says:

        I think choice is absolutely key.

      • Jay Swanson says:

        I guess it comes down to how you not only get kids to truly comprehend what they’re reading, but prove it too. You can’t just assume kids are reading, for one. And you can’t just assume they understand what they’re reading, for two. You have to measure learning somehow.

        Obviously to what level you expect them to comprehend it is one thing, but school really isn’t about having fun (as much as I hate to admit it). It sucks that school ruins reading for people; it didn’t ruin it for me. I might go so far as to say that TV is just a lazy option because it does all the lifting for you (reading requires imagination, turning pages, holding a small, light object) and people would rather sit on their butts than exercise. Both physically and mentally.

        And no one, kid or adult, takes the more challenging option without discipline or some innate desire beyond the medium. So if parents aren’t pushing their kids to read, but instead let TV reign in the house, books will lose out 4 times out of 5 (to be generous). Reading simply is more work as it is more involved. So I say the blame lays more with culture and parents than school. Kids still read plenty in the past before the lazy entertainment opportunities arose. And they had to read Gatsby too.

        • R. H. Culp says:

          I don’t think we should make reading more fun in school for the sake of fun, I think we should make it more fun to give kids a desire to read outside of school and practice those skills (or maybe we should just start forcing kids to watch TV in school to make TV seem like less fun). I also completely agree that it’s the culture to blame; I want to know how we can begin to change that culture.

    • lrorschach says:

      I think being read to is an absolutely wonderful way to draw people into a story who wouldn’t have otherwise picked up the book. My favorite teacher in fourth grade took 45 minutes out of every day, dimmed the lights in the room except for his desk lamp, and read to us. Sometimes poetry, sometimes fiction, but it didn’t make a difference to us. As students we would rest our heads on our arms and just listen, being carried away to another world of fantasy and wonder by his deep soothing voice. I’ve always loved reading, that was never a problem for me, but even the kids who hated to read loved and valued that story time. I even remember being quite sick one morning but deciding to go to school anyway because I didn’t want to miss the next installation of the book, that’s how powerful it was.

      And yes, everything changes when you hit high school. Books are brutalized in the way we are forced to pick them apart for every single detail. Maybe a bird is just a bird and not a symbol for the caged voice of the disenfranchised. And even if that was what the author was going for, does it really matter as long as I’m enjoying the story? I can’t see how reading Romeo and Juliet three different times as an assigned book made me a better reader–it just made me hate that play. And that is certainly not the way to create future generations of literati.

  • I think we just need to talk more about books! I think kids should get to choose what they read for school (for the most part). My parents don’t let me watch too much TV or play video games too much. We read a lot in our house.

    • R. H. Culp says:

      I was thinking the same thing about the school reading. Of the three or so books that I enjoyed reading for school, all but one of them were books I chose off a list of options. As for talking about books, it’s something that I love to do, but how do we draw other people, especially non-readers, into the conversation?

      • I think for kids it is important for parents to talk to their kids about books and make sure they know of all the types of books there are. Like kids who don’t like to read might like comic books or graphic novel adaptations of books (it’s still reading)! I just reviewed a new series by Patrick Carman called 3:15. It is a bunch of short stories and they all have an audio introduction and a video ending (you go to the web site to hear/see it). The stories are scary stories which isn’t my favorite type of book, but the idea is cool. Mr. Carman said he made it for “relucant readers”.

        • R. H. Culp says:

          That’s such a great idea. I’m going to have to look it up. It’s exactly what I’m talking about; trying to engage the “reluctant readers” in new and creative ways to make reading fun and interesting for them.

  • Jay Swanson says:

    I wonder how much of it falls in line with the tendency for it to be ‘cool’ to be stupid. Which is why you’ll never be cool, Culp.

  • Stef says:

    When my sons were very young, I read for them. Now we read together, share ideas, challenge thoughts and explore alternative ending. It’s been a while and this approach works for us (2 boys 6 and 9 years old) . We have TV, but limit to less than 30 minutes/night. They now log on the Toronto Public Library site, search for the books they want and put them on hold. Relating to your old entry, I encourage them to read the book before watching the adapted movie. I’m glad to say that reading is their habit now. I hope they will keep it when they grow up.

  • Alyssa says:

    My 7th and 8th grade teacher was amazing in many ways, but borderline brilliant when it came to literature and reading (which were two different subjects for us, by the way.) He assigned books which WERE fun, and not necessarily classical. In Literature, we read Huck Finn, Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island; books which are universally considered “Children’s Lit.”

    For reading, the class was two-fold. The first was a similar structure to literature class, but we were assigned The Hobbit, Where the Red Fern Grows, A Wrinkle in Time, and other books which weren’t necessarily difficult to read, but which were FUN. The second part was that we were encouraged to pursue “wide and varied reading” in the form of a reading journal. (part of which I absolutely hated: recording everything I read.)


    We got credit for reading Calvin and Hobbes. We got credit for reading Newsweek. We got credit for reading car magazines, or teen lit, or whatever it was we were reading as long as we READ. Children definitely need to develop the critical thinking skills which are taught in literature. There is immense growth in our society if we are able to read the classics.

    But when it comes down to it, reading something is better than reading nothing. And everyone I’ve met who’s read Calvin and Hobbes is stellar.

    • R. H. Culp says:

      I loved reading about how your teacher approached reading and literature. It really is a brilliant blend of classics and love for reading. You couldn’t be more right that it’s better to read anything than nothing at all. Especially at that age when you’re still developing reading skills that will allow you to pick up any book, newspaper, or job application years later and be able to not only immerse yourself in fantastical worlds, but also educate yourself on what’s happening in our own, and have the necessary skills to comprehend a job application and represent yourself well in resumes and cover letters. Thanks for the comments, as always.

  • Noela says:

    I am a web designer and blogger by profession. I could not imagine not reading. I could not be as skilled as I am without a book to teach me principals, code, selling strategies etc..etc.

    I have to read every day be it online blogs or paper back books or fictional stories to satisfy my thirst for knowledge and personal enjoyment.

    Great Article.

  • ipegasus says:

    I think it’s because finding a book you enjoy is a lot harder than finding a tv series you enjoy or any other medium. You can switch so much easier with other mediums…yet with a book, I find myself having to give it a good few chapters or at least read a quarter before I can decide whether I should keep going, or if I’ll enjoy the story. I read half of Sense and Sensibility before I decided it wasn’t for me : /

    • R. H. Culp says:

      I think there’s a lot of truth to that, but I also wonder how much of that is perception. There are lots of TV shows that I invest a couple hours of viewing time in (or even a couple seasons) before deciding that it’s no longer worth my time. Is that really so different than bailing on a book or series partway through? Is part of the perceived ease due to the fact that people talk more about TV shows on a day to day basis so we have a better idea of what’s popular and what we might like? I wonder if just increasing the conversation about books and reading would boost readership.

  • Zookie says:

    I didn’t read all the comments, so maybe it’s been mentioned already, but I feel that people don’t read because they weren’t read to as children. My parents both had a love of reading. They read to us kids all the time, and we all developed a love for books. I’ve read countless books to my children and they all love books and reading, too.
    My husband’s parents never read him a book in his life. And he doesn’t like to read. Can that be a coincidence?

    • R. H. Culp says:

      I totally agree that parents are probably the single largest contributors to kids perspectives on books, whether that’s from reading to them when they’re little or simply leading by example and sitting down to read a book in the evenings or on vacation rather other activities. So how can we encourage kids whose parents don’t read to them to still be interested in books and how do we get parents more interested in reading, for both their benefit and the benefit of their children?

      • ipegasus says:

        I agree with Zookie to a large extent. My parents never read to me as a kid. But my teachers did. And right now I’m the only one encouraging my sister to read. And I’ve been egging her to read lots and lots…because once you get older…I mean, a lot of us do just get out of the habit. And I do think her English needs some nurturing and books are a good way of developing better English. I hope.

  • Caroline says:

    It’s sad that reading has become a chore or boring to some people. I can’t imagine my life without books and reading. Reading can take you anywhere. As a teacher, students often are forced to read curriculum books that don’t interest them which is a shame. Many classes even eliminated read aloud class time. I love hearing children beg to hear more and laugh aloud when reading to themselves. It shouldn’t be a punishment either. Parents sometimes tell children they can’t do something until they read or withhold privileges. Let them read what they want, talk with them about what they read, give them a library card, and show them that you read.

  • stoehrkr says:

    So as a middle school teacher at a failing school on a reservation in South Dakota getting kids to read for fun is incredibly difficult.

    As far as I can see it comes down to three things:

    1. Having the ability to read

    So many times my kids are reading at a lower elementary (K-4) reading level. The books that are at that level are no longer interesting or they don’t “look” like the books a 7th grader should be reading. Students who struggle decoding and comprehending decide that they don’t like reading and never will. (We are working on changing this don’t worry!)

    2. Having access to role models who read for fun.

    The students at my school often (not always) come from parents who also grew up in this community. Parents don’t like reading and don’t often do it for fun and access to books (nearest public library is literally in a different state) is not exactly easy. As a teacher I do try to show my kids that I read for fun but frankly as a science teacher I don’t always have the chance.

    3. It can’t come from school

    Books that are required reading for school will never be fun. We as teachers have to teach our students skills–determining importance, summarizing, symbolism, vocabulary–and so regardless if I use Ender’s Game or National Geographic it will be considered work. Take for example “Great Expectations” a Dicken’s book I was not particularly fond of in my high school Freshman Honors English class. I was somehow convinced to read it a second time my first year of college and I thoroughly enjoyed it (I recall you, Mr. Culp were not a fan of that one…). School is a students equivalent of work and if you are a waitress regardless if you have a table of your favorite authors to wait on it’s still work and surely another of your tables is filled with rather loud and complaining teachers…

    So, if you have any suggestions for high interest, low level books let me know!

    • R. H. Culp says:

      Oh Miss Haversham how I loath thee. I’ve actually been meaning to give Dickens a second chance recently but haven’t gotten around to it. You bring up a lot of really good points. I admit, I haven’t ever thought about the fact that if a young person is older than their corresponding reading level than they’re probably not interested in those books because they want more exciting things. My only thought about any reading for school automatically being work is that I enjoyed a select few of the books I read in high school. If my memory serves me correctly, most of those books were from reading lists where I had to read one or two off a long list. Just having some say in what I was reading gave me more buy in.
      As for high interest, low level books, I’m reading The Resisters right now by Eric Nylund and I think it might fit the bill. I’m not too far in, but I’ll keep you updated on what I think (and will inevitably review it up here at some point). Thanks Kali for your great insights (as usual).

      • stoehrkr says:

        Your welcome. I do try to be insightful sometimes. I’ll look into the Resisters (I do occasionally buy books for kids I think will read them for fun). Let me know when you’re reading about Pip’s adventures, I’ll be sure to harass you with some 9th grade questions about the symbolism of Miss Haversham’s yellowed wedding dress.

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