Literature professors and avid bibliophiles have been lamenting the death of reading since the dawn of the internet age. Recent research suggests the average American only reads 12 books a year and nearly half of 18-24 year olds read no books for pleasure. But what’s all the fuss about? Why should we care?
Reading Prevents Crime
For years, it was rumored that prison officials used 3rd grade reading scores to determine how many jail cells to build. Though California Dept. of Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton recently debunked the myth once and for all, research does show there is a strong link between reading levels and crime.
In a study of 96 boys from Michigan and Minnesota public schools, Dennis Hogenson found that reading failure was “the single most significant factor in aggressive delinquents.” In other words, lack of reading skills— more than race or socio-economic status— may best predict later crime. So what does cracking open a book have to do with breaking the law? Child psychologist Carl Kline hypothesizes that poor readers lose confidence in themselves and thus become frustrated with school. Continued frustration over prolonged periods results in either “aggressive behavior directed outwardly toward society (delinquency) or inwardly toward the self (neurosis).”
So will a surge in reading rates suddenly rid the world of all murder and armed assault? No. But that literacy and crime are related is undeniable.
Reading Increases Academic Achievement
That early literacy levels impact later academic achievement is nothing new. But the idea that 3rd grade reading scores can predict the course of a child’s life is startling…and in fact confirmed by a 2010 University of Chicago study. Over 10 years, University of Chicago researchers followed 26,000 3rd grade students through middle and high school to determine whether early literacy could predict future educational outcomes. 8th and 9th grade reading levels, high school graduation rates, and college enrollment, experts believed, would reflect a child’s ability in the 3rd grade to read at grade level.
Of the students who were reading below grade level in 3rd grade, 40% were also below grade level in 8th grade. Additionally, only 45% of those who had read below grade level graduated from high school, compared to more than 60% of students who had read at grade level and nearly 80% of students who had read above grade level.
It is a common saying that until the end of 3rd grade students are learning to read, but beginning in 4th grade are “reading to learn.” Those who fail to master basic literacy skills by this critical period risk falling behind which, according to researcher Joy Lesnick, makes it almost impossible to catch up. Children need us to model good reading habits, but if our enthusiasm for reading wanes, if our fervor for literature continues to slump, future generations of children will suffer.
Reading (Especially Literature) Teaches Empathy
Why read literature? According to social psychologists Emanuele Castano and David Kidd of the New School in New York City, people who read literary fiction can better empathize with people. In their 2013 study, groups of participants were given different reading tasks ranging from excerpts of literary fiction, popular fiction, non-fiction to nothing at all. After reading, participants were given Reading the Mind in the Eyes, a Harvard social intelligence test, to measure their emotional IQ.
The results were staggering.
Those who read literary texts like Louise Erdrich’s The Round House were significantly better at identifying other people’s emotions. For example, when shown a pair of wide, terrified eyes, a popular fiction or non-reader might misinterpret them as showing jealousy when a literary reader would correctly guess panic. (If you’re curious, you can take the test here).
The very nature of literature, Castano and Kidd argue, may explain the results: while literature requires the reader to guess at the complexities of a character’s behaviors/motives, popular fiction a la’ Nicholas Sparks often relies on stock, overly simplified character types, which are of little help out in the real world of complicated, mysterious people. So if you need to brush up on your people skills, the idea goes, bypass the bestseller section and pick up a copy of Crime & Punishment.
Reading is a Lesson in Tolerance
In an increasingly global marketplace, children have to interact with other cultures more than ever. Kids Health defines tolerance not as a putting up with other cultures, but as a “respecting and learning from others, valuing differences, bridging cultural gaps, rejecting unfair stereotypes, discovering common ground, and creating new bonds.”
Reading novels may not eradicate all bigotry and hate, but it’s a start. In one study, high school English teacher Anna Schmidt surveyed two of her ELL classes before and after reading novels about another culture. Disturbed by her students’ casual use of offensive terms like “retarded” and “gay,” Schmidt wondered whether literature might teach them a much needed lesson in tolerance. In the surveys, students were asked to answer questions that assessed their tolerance of other cultural groups; students read the selected texts and then responded to the same survey after. In addition to the assessments, Schmidt tallied the number of prejudiced, inappropriate comments students made during class (unbeknownst to them of course).
Interestingly enough, students did not show significant gains in tolerance according to the quantitative data. Observation of students, however, demonstrated that they did become more tolerant of the group they had read about. For example, those who read Ties That Bind, Ties That Break, a novel tracing the development of a young Chinese girl who strays from social convention and refuses to have her feet bound, only stopped making racist, small-minded remarks about Chinese people-not other cultural groups. So though reading literature can shatter powerful misconceptions and dispel prevailing stereotypes, the lesson in tolerance may be limited to the culture studied.
Reading Promotes Civic Engagement & Volunteerism
Reading literature can also promote positive social behavior like charity and social activism. In a NEA Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, researchers found that 43% of literary readers volunteer compared to only 16% of non-readers. These results astonished researchers, who predicted only a slight difference between the two groups.
So why are literary readers nearly 3x more likely than non-readers to do charity work? Experts claim a keener social consciousness may explain the results. Reading, evidence suggests, is an effacement of self: it is an imaging of the world from the perspectives of other people. To read a novel is to encounter the foreign “other”: a character who hardly resembles us and superficially seems quite different, but ultimately shares our same, human hungers for love and belonging. Turning the crinkled pages of a beloved novel may seem like a passive activity, but it provides rigorous instruction in the world of another individual. By asking us to momentarily discard our own identities and listen to the most intimate thoughts of another, literature dismantles unsophisticated notions of us vs. them, making us more likely to be sympathetic toward others. Because readers are so well-versed in this art of being other people, they are generally more compassionate and volunteer out of a moral duty to serve their fellows. A drastic decline in reading, as is happening now, threatens to compromise such altruism.
Reading is Vital to Preserving a Free, Democratic Society
Democracy depends on an active, engaged citizenry of free thinkers. As scholars Michael Boatright and Mark Faust note, “Reading opens opportunity, invites critique, revisits outmoded ways of knowing, and incites readers to join in a meaning-making process that speaks to present contingencies and the needs of the times.”
Unfortunately for many of us, the national obsession with standardized tests and the Common Core has made reading a perfunctory exercise in late night Spark Notes searches and end of the year multiple choice exams we hope we can guess our way out of. Rather than excite and provoke us, reading— as it is currently taught in U.S. schools— squashes curiosity, slamming the door on exploratory imagination by shifting focus away from deep analytical thinking to plot-based questions and definitive yes or no answers. “Who do Marcellus and Bernardo see at the beginning of Hamlet?” “What does Hamlet do to prove King Claudius’s guilt?” These are the kinds of idiotic questions that litter our English classrooms. Besides being outright boring, these pointless, ho-hum drills fail to prepare students for the real world, a world that demands that they actively participate. Such mundane methods of assessment simply ask students to regurgitate routine, factual information instead of challenge them to form opinions of their own.
But reading— at its best— can empower students to clarify and define their world view as well as upset erroneous ideas they once believed to be true. This ability to criticize and question, to bring ideas under the bright light of analysis which is at the heart of close reading, is crucial to a healthy, functioning democracy where citizens govern themselves. Even our forefathers considered reading a bulwark against tyranny and injustice; when asked whether he’d prefer a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, Thomas Jefferson famously said “he would not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
In a world saturated, in fact, based in language and information, citizens must learn to navigate the ideological terrain and uncover answers for themselves if democracy is to prosper.
Reading is Power
Remember those immortal lines from Animal Farm? “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
If we were to analyze this fine sentence, we’d say its genius lies in the fundamental contradiction of its claims. To be equal suggests total conformity, complete sameness of status and opportunity. However, the second clause (introduced by the contrasting coordinating conjunction “but”) serves to rewrite the first. The word “some”— which usually acts as a determiner but here behaves as a pronoun— immediately alienates the once identical and unified animals. Some— that little, insignificant pronoun— splits the supposedly equal citizens into stratified, unequal groups. Its radical vagueness (after all, to whom does “some” refer?) points to the chillingly oppressive tactics of totalitarianism’s manipulation machine. If “some” is left forever without an antecedent, eternally ambiguous, the question of who belongs to this privileged class is up for debate and, thus, can be determined at will by those in power.
But the real kicker happens a few words later when Orwell claims that some animals “are more equal than others.” What makes this last clause so great? We might say its the language of comparison intruding and imposing itself upon the language of democracy. Equality signifies the principal tenet of democratic philosophy and, though Napoleon’s government imagines itself as a kind of egalitarian, classless utopia, here the comparative adjective “more”— in much the same fashion as the unspecified pronoun “some”— reveals his democracy a farce. “More” directly violates the notion of equality as it positions some animals as higher, or better, than others.
Orwell’s glaring contradiction performs two functions: 1) it proves the manipulativeness and cunning of Napoleon and those in power and 2) by its open ridiculousness, the commandment reveals the extent to which the rulers have succeeded in governing the ruled.
Though Animal Farm is a work of fiction, it has some serious, real world things to teach us about the importance of reading. Napoleon succeeds in oppressing the other animals largely as a result of their failure to read critically. It is no coincidence that the most illiterate places in the world have some of the most corrupt, politically unstable governments: a critical, literate public is the first step to preventing the manipulation of language by those in power.
Reading Counteracts Our Thirst for Instant Gratification
If “patience is a virtue,” today patience— if anything— is a forgotten virtue. In a world overrun by quick fixes, get-rich-quick schemes and the instant gratification of Facebook and Twitter, many of us have forgotten that the best things in life require us to invest time and effort. Unlike watching yet another rerun of Law & Order SVU, reading flexes our patience muscles by demanding we work painstakingly before we receive any sort of reward.
According to behavioral economist Dan Ariely, there is a clear link between effort and reward: the harder and longer we work for something, he contends, the greater we will perceive its value. To test his theory, Ariely asked 2 groups to make origami: in the first group, participants were given detailed instructions; in the second, the instructions were eliminated entirely. After completing the task, each group was asked how much they would pay for the finished product.
What Ariely found was that— even though their origami was far uglier— those who were forced to work harder by a lack of instructions valued their creations substantially more than those whose task was relatively simple.
So what does this tell us about reading? Reading is naturally more challenging than passive forms of entertainment like television and, thus, offers us greater opportunities for real payoff. Patience— that gentle, dogged, if underrated quality— is a byproduct of voracious reading and necessary to accomplishing anything in life that is worthwhile.
Reading Stimulates the Economy
A shortage of capable readers is also bad news for the economy. Though oral and written communication skills top the list of most important job qualifications, 38% of employers rate new hires as deficient in reading comprehension and 72% as deficient in written English skills.
Though unemployment has remained high at 6.3%, employers complain there are not enough qualified candidates to fill available jobs. Some blame the prevalence of texting and social media for the deterioration of our basic language skills, but the more likely explanation is that we simply don’t read. If we continue to neglect books, we can say goodbye to an educated workforce and hello to economic turmoil.
Reading Reduces Stress & Makes Us Happier
“Losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation,” says cognitive neuropsychologist Dr. David Lewis of the University of Sussex. More than listening to music, strolling through the park, or unwinding with a steaming cup of tea, reading can calm anxiety and restore a state of well-being and balance.In fact, in a recent study, Lewis found that reading can reduce stress levels by up to 68% while listening to music reduced levels by 61%, drinking a cup of tea reduced them by 54%, and walking by 42%. Playing video games was the worst stress reducer, eliminating stress by only 21% (which should be no surprise, considering video games have been shown to actually increase aggression).
“Participants only had to read silently for 6 minutes before their heart rates slowed and their muscles began to relax,” observed Lewis, who also noted that their stress levels were actually lower than before they started.
Reading soothes the agitated mind by catapulting us into an imaginary realm where we can briefly detach from the uncertainty and terror of our own lives. But reading is not a pure, irresponsible escapism: it is a functional escapism that leaves us better equipped to calmly handle the realities of the world.