What’s the big deal about reading?

Posted: May 20, 2014 in In my opinion...
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

“Kids these days – they’re all glued to their phones or their PCs or their iPads. They just don’t read anymore!”

Ever heard this? Or ever said it? Recently a Facebook friend shared this Forbes article, which proposes the theory that it’s the parents’ fault. My own children are avid and competent fiction readers, which should be a given if Jordan Shapiro’s theory is correct, but anecdotal evidence (the responses on Facebook) suggests that this is not necessarily so; some people were raised by non-reading parents yet grew up to be keen readers, and others are trying without success to impart their own love of reading to their reluctant offspring.

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As a writer and an educator with a particular focus on literacy skills, my life damn near revolves around the issue of kids not reading enough. Of course I want children to read often and well and to enjoy doing so – I hope to still be writing when the children I’m teaching now are adults, and my future customers have to come from somewhere.

Despite my vested interests, I’ve often asked myself why it is important to students and society in general that they learn to comprehend fiction. Do they really need it to function as cogs in the capitalist wheel? Isn’t it enough that they can read a contract, follow a recipe, interpret a news article, or understand a users’ manual? The answer can perhaps be found in the aforementioned article. Shapiro says:

Parents need to take responsibility for raising thoughtful, empathic, open-minded adults. Books are a crucial part of the equation.

By ChinaFlag (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsFor more exploration of the question, Time says that “Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer.” The Guardian reports on a study (Stephenie Meyer detractors might want to look away now) that finds reading fiction improves empathy. And Salon talks about another study showing that literary fiction makes us better thinkers and better decision-makers.

These articles raise more questions than they answer. Does the medium of delivery matter – does it have to be a paper book, or do e-books and even audio books deliver the same benefits? (Shapiro’s article cites studies that show e-books have the same effect, but I’ve seen other studies that suggest the evidence is less than conclusive, and Shapiro implies that audio books just don’t cut the mustard.) Where does genre fiction fit in – does it have to be literary fiction, and if so, who gets decide what qualifies as “worthy” literature? What about other forms of fiction – can we not learn empathy and improve our thinking skills by watching a movie? Can we build the same lessons into, say, a role-playing computer game? And if not, why not? What role should schools play in teaching thoughtfulness, open-mindedness and empathy? Are we burdening parents with yet another layer of guilt for laying the blame for declining levels of literacy squarely at their feet?

Your input, dear readers, is most welcome.

 

 

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