The Spark of a Reading Revolution?
Once upon a time, in a land far away, I first discovered the magic of reading. Much to my mother’s chagrin (and perhaps her secret pride) I took to it with moxie; my appetite was voracious and sometimes to the point of gluttony. Often, my punishment for not doing my chores was my mother holding my current book hostage until I completed them.
My passion for reading continued throughout high school and college. I got a part-time job in the library and picked through musty book covers and articles, setting them aside like small treasures to enjoy when my shift ended. I was rich, but didn’t know it.
I cannot pinpoint the exact moment my devotion began to wane, but I’m confident it was prodded along by the meteoric rise of online streaming platforms and players like Hulu and Netflix. Now, much of my leisure time is spent watching television and movies that I can get access to with ease and in a matter of minutes. And while it can be relaxing, it is also a passive activity: me, sitting, watching, a story plays out in front of me without having to consider its connotations, understand its meanings or recognize its lessons. Watching television and movies is like sugar; enjoyable, but best consumed in moderation. Reading, by contrast, is the protein I require to thrive and one I am sorely lacking.
Sadly, I am not alone in this as recent research by the Pew Foundation explores. Jordan Weissmann reports in The Atlantic that, when surveyed in 2013, “[…] nearly a quarter of American adults had not read a single book in the past year. As in, they hadn’t cracked a paperback, fired up a Kindle, or even hit play on an audiobook while in the car. The number of non-book-readers has nearly tripled since 1978.”
Worse still, the reading deficit is not contained to adults. Just this past week, a report released by Common Sense Media showed the proportion of kids 9 to 17-years old who “never” or “hardly ever” read has tripled in the past 30 years. Moreover, the reading scores of 17-year-olds haven’t changed since 1984. Suddenly, the magical world I knew and took for granted as a child is in severe peril.
You might be wondering why this topic is so important, or what’s at risk when the percentage of avid readers plummets. I will be frank: I had the same initial thought when I first heard these reports. But that question was answered for me quickly.
As Nicholas Kristof posited this week, education – reading, writing, and learning – has the power to transform society. Recent world events have demonstrated this power: the planned kidnap of nearly 300 schoolgirls by the terrorist group Boko Haram last month in Nigeria and the shooting of Malala Yousafzai in 2012 to name a few. Kristof succinctly writes, “The greatest threat to extremism isn’t drones firing missiles, but girls reading books.”
I am fortunate to have grown up in a home and in a society where learning and reading were not only encouraged, but expected of me. And I am even more fortunate to have had parents, teachers and role models that taught me the innate joy, knowledge and wisdom that reading provides. I agree with Frank Bruni, who writes, “[I am] someone persuaded that reading does things — to the brain, heart and spirit — that movies, television, video games and the rest of it cannot.”
In the spirit of solidarity, camaraderie, empowerment, and hope for a more thoughtful, educated world, I will turn off my television tonight and sneak back into the book I started reading a few months ago. I will relish the words on the page with newfound appreciation for the story they tell, the possibility they provide, and the fact that I have the opportunity to enjoy that at all. And I hope you will join me.