Thursday, May 05, 2011


The news of large bookstore chains selling off numerous stores (Barnes & Noble) or declaring bankruptcy (Borders) is, to me, only an expanding backdrop of what I see all the time on campus. My students don't read. They don't like to read, they don't think it's relevant to their lives, and they feel like people only do it because they're old and not really connected to social media.

Of course, this isn't applicable to every student. But it's true of enough of them to worry me.

On the other hand, in some circles, the popularity of the Twilight series and Harry Potter books is a cause for mockery. How could people read those?!? What happened to all the real books? With existential crises and true self-examination, following by meaningful epiphanies?

In my opinion, just Read! For the most part, I don't care what anyone is reading, as long as they're reading it. I even told my students (who were complaining about how incomprehensible they found Mary Shelley's Frankenstein), during grad school, I was either reading dense literary works and literary criticism .... or romance novels. There wasn't really a whole lot going on in between. When I wasn't required to really focus on and interpret these literary masterpieces, I just wanted some entertainment. Obviously I prefer books that are well-written, but that isn't always a requirement. I just wanted something that would be enjoyable to read, and I would know how it all is going to end, and if I miss a detail here or there, so what? It wasn't an intense, line-by-line breakdown of Shakespeare's tragedies, and it kept me happy.

But now, my students feel like the only things people read are Literature. And Literature is intimidating and hard and to be avoided at all costs. For the most part, they don't have any sense of reading for pleasure.

I have never really understood people who say that they don't like reading. What's not to like? The whole point of it is that you can pick ANYTHING and there will be many, many books about that topic. Just now, I did a keyword search at in the books section for "marmoset" and got 248 results. 138 titles were in the science section; one each in law, Manual of Animal Technology and romance, Nihilistic Foibles. (Sounds titillating!)

When we first met, Keith used to tell me that he was "not a reader." (And yet I'm married to him! Shocking!) Except he did change his mind. It came out that for Keith, like many, many people, he stopped enjoying reading once so much reading became assigned for homework that reading became a chore instead of a pleasure. I think he said it was around fifth or sixth grade. I kept encouraging him to give it another try—not very subtly, I'm sure—and now he probably has more books piled on his nightstand than I do. It was just a matter of finding out, as an adult, what types of reading he enjoyed and focusing on those.

I wish more children, from a very young age, were encouraged to see reading as a pleasurable, fun, independent activity related to their unique interests. Once they get to college, I feel like telling them "You have to read more!" goes in one ear and out the other. Unless their ears are filled with earbuds, in which case it never goes in at all. By the time I see them, they see reading as an archaic activity that's completely out-of-sync with their social media, tech-driven, multi-tasking lifestyles. And I don't know what it would take to convince them otherwise.

If I could assign them readings that they would all enjoy, would that help? But that's not an option; my whole point is that it's about individual taste. But when I generally tell them, "Trust me! You'll like it!" that doesn't matter.

I guess I'm not really sure which bothers me more: people who claim to not like reading, or people who choose to look down on certain reading material, instead of just being happy that kids are reading at all. Both attitudes are a serious cause for concern about the literacy of our society, and reading's future as an enjoyed, beloved pastime of the majority.


revjeremy said...

Unfortunately for there isn't a well paying job that I know of that doesn't require the skills acquired through reading. When I talk to freshman coming into engineering school one of the major points I try to make is "Even though you think you will never have to read/write in your math/science profession, I assure you it is ALL you will do."

I'm not sure the bookstores closing is a sign that people are reading less. It could be a sign that the marketplace is changing and that expensive brick and mortar stores are downsizing because they no longer have the luxury of smashing out their smaller competitors because of their lack of a distribution network. So instead of lowering their prices and "devaluing" their product they are forced to cut cost to maintain their 60% (made up figure!) margins.

Maybe there is a niche to be filled here, a way to marry social media and literature. There is some early evidence of companies doing this. You can send tweets from a Kindle so your social network can tell what you are reading. I also see a lot of posts from colleagues who do a lot of science fiction online gaming that requires a lot of story-tellingish reading.

I always thought a "real-time book club" would be a good idea, where people all over the world reading the same book could collaborate/discuss what is going on at the point of the book they are reading at that moment.

But your right, I don't have many friends that read. I can't think of any (that wear tweed), but I am sure there are 1 or 2.

revjeremy said...

forgot to mention, I am currently on book 6 of the Tarzan book series.

I recommend (and its free on Amazon).

M. Lubbers said...

I also like the idea of a real-time book club. I'm sure they must exist! I'll let you know if I find any.

It's hard teaching College Comp, because I know that the majority of the students in my classes don't want to be there and aren't convinced that they'll get anything out of the class. I make the same arguments that you do--that everyone MUST communicate, no matter what job they end up in--but I don't think I get through to many people.

I'm just doing the best I can to make Eleanor into a reader!:)

Steve said...

It is sad that young people don't read. It's impacted the newspaper business. Circulation among the major dailies has dropped in many citites here in the USA. This leads to an uninformed citizenry. They have themselves to blame with the leaders they choose.

M. Lubbers said...

You bring up an interesting question: Does a lower circulation of print newspapers equate with an uninformed citizenry? I'm not sure that it's the same thing. But I'm going to do a follow-up post, based on your and Jeremy's comments.

Thanks for the comment!