I heard a story the other day on the radio about how many words a preschooler hears on average during a day. The statistics were divided between children in professional homes and welfare homes (I’m not sure how the categories were defined). The differences were amazing. A child from a professional home is exposed to about 2000 words per hour for a total of 48 million words by the time they are four. Contrasted with the children of welfare homes who are only exposed to about 600 words per hour for a total of 13 million words by age four, the disparity is troubling.
This story brought to mind a report from a few years back from the National Endowment for the Arts which showed that adults are reading for pleasure at significantly lower rates than in years past. They had a follow up report looking at pleasure reading among children and adolescents that was equally grim.
My reaction, as a reader, could be to feel morally superior to the non-readers of the world and whine about the declining culture and blah, blah, blah. But that doesn’t feel very productive. I think the more important thing is to look at it from the other side and ask the question why should we read? What’s the point? What do we gain from reading?
The NEA report offered several answers to the question. Many of which I am skeptical about. They conclude that good readers have access to better jobs and financial rewards in their careers. I don’t dispute that fact, but it’s hardly a reason to read. I can’t remember a time ever picking up a book and saying to myself, â€œI’d like to read this book because it will help me get a job.â€ No. They also find that good readers score better on reading tests. Duh. Again not much intrinsic motivation for reading. Finally, they conclude that good readers are better citizens and capable of enriching our cultural life. I don’t dispute this, but again it’s not why I read.
I finished Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story recently. In it the act of reading has transformed into something that is done on screens and not for any literary purpose, but merely to convey information (text messages, status updates, info. feeds, etc…). The main character, Lenny, is the lone holdout who actually reads books for pleasure. This act is looked on by the other characters with great suspicion.
Again the question is there. Why does Lenny continue to read books? Aren’t they relics of a bygone era?
In our world we are presented with endless opportunities to access information. We have our cell phones with their text messages, and apps for info., we have our computers with non-stop data coming at us, we have tickers on TV screens with the latest headlines, and on and on. Yet, even though we read as much now as ever, we read less for pleasure.
When I was a young child, my family probably would have fit the above study’s category of a welfare home. We weren’t on full welfare, but I remember times when we had to use food stamps and eat government provided food. We weren’t destitute, but we certainly struggled. Yet despite that, I became a passionate and committed reader. Why? What role did reading fulfill for me?
For me, the act of reading became, especially the older I got, an act of mild rebellion. A thumbing my nose at my situation in life. My view was that reading was something that I could own completely and no one could stop me. A library card was free. The school library was free. I didn’t have access to the cool clothes and the things that money could buy, but I had access to a world that others chose to ignore. I could share something with the greatest minds in history through text that others cast aside as boring or stupid. I knew the truth. I had something that they didn’t. I owned that. My love of reading has grown beyond this, but this was the spark.
Readers can’t force non-readers to pick up books. As Virginia Woolf put it, â€œThe only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice.â€ Harold Bloom put it this way, â€œReading well is best pursued as an implicit discipline…â€ Reading is personal.
In the preface to How to Read and Why, which I quoted from above, Harold Bloom says, â€œWe read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial and passional life.â€ The singer/songwriter Lou Reed put it another way, â€œYou can’t depend on your family, you can’t depend on your friends.â€ A pretty bleak view of the world, but there is some element of truth in it. You can depend on the world that you share in books. You can find a like mind to share your sympathies, concerns, and even your prejudices in the pages of a book. You can be a member of society. You can find who you really are in a book. You can be all that you’ve ever wanted to be in the pages of a book.
But you have to open it first to find out.
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