“Can I Go Back To My Books Now?” says the “Extreme Reader” – Has The “Reading Class” Reached Its Natural Limits?
I love to read. Not everybody does. I know some really, really smart people who read very little – at least, they read very few books, or even longform reads (what we used to call essays). Oh, they read lots and lots and lots of e-mails, business proposals, spreadsheets… They know how to learn. They just don’t like to read books At least, not in large, undisturbed chucks of time.
And when they do read books, they read them in short bursts – a chapter here, a chapter there.
Well, there is a terrific longform read up on The Chronicle of Higher Education site: We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading by Alan Jacobs. Here are a few paragraphs, to give some key thoughts from the article (yes, I am shortening an essay on “long reads” so that it will be short enough to get the highlights – now that’s irony!):
But whatever designations we want to use, it has to be admitted that much of the anxiety about American reading habits, and those in other developed nations to a lesser degree, arises from frustration at not being able to sustain a permanent expansion of “the reading class” (emphasis added) beyond what may be its natural limits.
Serious “deep attention” reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit, a fact that has been obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States, by the dramatic increase in the percentage of the population attending college, and by the idea (only about 150 years old) that modern literature in vernacular languages should be taught at the university level.
In 2005, Wendy Griswold, Terry McDonnell, and Nathan Wright, sociologists from Northwestern University, published a paper concluding that while there was a period in which extraordinarily many Americans practiced long-form reading, whether they liked it or not, that period was indeed extraordinary and not sustainable in the long run. “We are now seeing such reading return to its former social base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class.”
The extreme reader, to coin a phrase, is a rare bird indeed. (“I have done what people do, my life makes a reasonable showing,” Lynne Sharon Schwartz writes. “Can I go back to my books now?”)
Those are my tribe, but they are few. It is more common to come across the person who has known the joys of reading but who can be distracted from them. But even those folks are a small percentage of the population.
American universities are largely populated by people who don’t fit either of these categories—often really smart people for whom the prospect of several hours attending to words on pages (pages of a single text) is not attractive. For lovers of books and reading, and especially for those of us who become teachers, this fact can be painful and frustrating. We love reading, we think it’s wonderful, and we want other people to think so, too. “What we have loved,/Others will love,” wrote Wordsworth, “and we will teach them how.” A noble sentiment! Inspiring! But what if, after great labor, we discover—this often happens—that we can’t teach them how? Whose fault is that?
Perhaps it isn’t anyone’s fault.
I don’t know whether an adult who has never practiced deep attention—who has never seriously read for information or for understanding, or even for delight—can learn how. Some current college students will not have had those experiences, and it would be futile and painful to expect them to read as most of their teachers have read.
A couple of reflections:
#1 — what is critical is learning, and those who are part of the “reading class” can learn much. But that is not the only way to learn. And, by the way, one can read a lot and never learn. (Back to the old “knowing-doing gap”).
The formula should be:
read + reflect + look for transferable principles/lessons + decide what to do + do!
In other words, if you stop at the “I’ve read this book” stage, you’ve learned little.
#2 – But, reading is still a great place to start that formula.
I would like to encourage you to read – books – in long stretches of time.
And, start by reading this essay. It is a terrific read.
A small quibble over a statistic: Here’s what Jacobs wrote:
At the beginning of the 20th century, perhaps 2 percent of Americans attended a university; now the number is closer to 70 percent (though only about 30 percent get bachelor’s degrees).
This is confusing. I don’t doubt that he has read that statistic. I just doubt that statistic. “70 percent attend a university?” Really? The high school graduation rate is only around 71% nationally. That would mean that practically every single high school graduate attends college/university.
I don’t think so!
I have read a lot of books in my lifetime. Quite a few have enriched me, taught me, challenged me, entertained me… Some have angered me. But, I must admit that I had a hard time coming up with a specific book that actually changed my life.
Except…. Maybe a few books helped me develop my love for reading, and thus launched me into this habit of reading books. So, in terms of what I do with my time, in that sense, reading books changed my life – and turned me into a book reader.
Anyway, I thought about this when I read this from Andrew Sullivan’s blog. It is from a reader’s e-mail. Whether you like Ayn Rand or not, this is quite a story about how a book changed one person’s life.
This is a longer “borrow” than usual. But, I think it is worth reading. And then we can all ask, which book actually changed our life?
Although I don’t agree with Objectivism as a philosophy, and I recognize the glaringly obvious flaws of Rand’s political ideas, its influence on me was very personal. And the other people I know who absolutely swear by her work, for most of them it is also a personal debt, not a political or philosophical one (I’ve personally never met a self-described objectivist in my life).
I grew up in an upper-middle class family in the suburbs of just-another-middle-American city. I was very smart. And like many kids born in my position, I became spoiled and bratty as I got older. Everything in my early life came way too easily – whether it was acing my math tests, or getting the new toy I wanted – and as a result, I entered my young adult years with a severe sense of entitlement. The world owed me something and I’d be damned if I ever had to work for it. I was a perennial underachiever, and any egging by my professors or parents to achieve more or do something magnificent or productive with my talent, I met with disdain and arrogance. How dare you tell me what to do? If things went wrong, it was never my fault because I didn’t try to begin with. If things went right, it was result of my pure genius and talent even though I didn’t try. I moped through the first 20 years of my life like this, avoiding failure and generally being an asshole about it.
Then I read Atlas Shrugged one spring break. I know it’s really cheesy to say this, but I became a new person overnight. It ignited a sense of responsibility and self-control in me that I had never been aware of. Instead of lecturing me about the virtues of achievement and taking responsibility and using your talent for good like my parents did, it SHOWED the virtues to me through Hank Rearden and Dagny and Francisco and Galt. Suddenly, I felt ashamed that I had gone through my whole life the way that I had. People have a responsibility to give life and society everything they’ve got. That’s the message I got. And I had been scoffing at that moral imperative from day one.
I immediately returned to school – a crappy small state school that I half-assed my way into – made straight A’s, transferred the next year to a prestigious private school in the Northeast, graduated Summa Cum Laude, started my own business and have never looked back. And again, this is so corny, but it’s true: I can point to that book as the moment it began. Sure, Ayn Rand is wrong about a lot of stuff. Of course the characters in the novel are totally idealized and unrealistic. But for me and where I was, it lit a fire under my ass that has never gone out. And I can unequivocally say that I’m a much better person for having read it.
R.I.P. English? Texting is giving proper grammar the proverbial ‘dirt-nap’ by Leslie Villeda. I teach Speech at Eastfield College, one of the Dallas County Community College campuses. This is the current cover story for our school newspaper. Here are some excerpts:
OMG I cnt blieve ppl rly rite like diz. lol. Wats up wit dat??? SMH.
Millions of Americans communicate on a daily basis via text messaging, often using a cryptic new language filled with abbreviations and acronyms. And while technology has allowed people to communicate and stay in touch with friends and relatives, it may also be bringing about the downfall of the English language.
There was a time when kids went to school and were taught one simple rule about writing: You can’t break the rules until you’ve learned them. Unfortunately, the texters and grammar “rule breakers” are getting younger and younger these days. So young, in fact, that they are breaking the rules without giving themselves an opportunity to learn them.
This leaves no chance for learning actual English.
“As a writing teacher, I can tell you firsthand that it [texting] definitely is hampering the kids’ ability to spell, first and foremost,” said Keysha Smith, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at Robert T. Hill Middle School in Dallas. “Number two, students don’t have a good grasp of grammar or a complete sentence because they don’t write in complete sentences. Sentence structure is out the window.”
There is also a problem with kids incorporating texting lingo into their academic writing.
I think the article raises a really important conversation. But… here’s what I think. Is the proliferation of the shorthand used in texting a problem? Is it contributing to a decline in writing skills – writing with proper grammar, proper structure? Probably. But it is not the main culprit. The main culprit is a little simpler – and much more alarming.
People are not reading enough!
Children and students (up through college age), are developing a habit that is far more deadly to their communication skills than their texting is. That habit is a lifestyle devoid of reading. The time that earlier generations spent reading, this generation spends on video games, and a whole lot of texting. The average child-through-teenager literally sends (and reads!) thousands of text messages a month. Consider this from a Nielsen Co. study (read the summary here):
The average 13- to 17-year-old sends and receives a whopping 3,339 text messages a month, and adults’ use of text messaging is starting to climb — although to nowhere near the levels of American teens.
With so much time spent in texting, the average teenager simply is not exposed to actual, good, writing.
So here’s my theory. We need to help our teenagers read more. We need to get militant/obsessed/fanatical about making our students actually read — read well written material. Daily. Weekly. Over the long haul.
You learn to write partly by exposing yourself to good writing – by reading good books by good authors. Texting may contribute to bad writing habits, but it is only the current evasive activity. Put lots of good books in the hands of students, and make sure they actually read the books – this is the need of the hour!
A personal note: of course I think things were “better” when I was young (doesn’t everyone?). No video games. No texting. Lots and lots of books. In my own life I started with comic books, then went to the Hardy Boys, then Nero Wolfe, then Mickey Spillane, then “serious books.” I read every Hardy Boys book, every Nero Wolfe book (still re-read these periodically), every Mickey Spillane book… and now, I read every Malcolm Gladwell, book, and nearly every book by quite a few other authors (Michael Lewis comes to mind).
Do you read? How did you learn to love reading? I imagine that you learned to love to read by reading. I know of no other path.
In a recent Weekly Insights newsletter from Verne Harnish (sign up for this newsletter here), Verne included this paragraph:
A-Player Execs Read 24 Books Per Year — Brad Smart, father of the Topgrading concept, researched 6500 top executives. The difference between the A-Players and the C-Players? The A-Players were continuous learners, reading on average 24 books per year (12 fiction and 12 non-fiction). Those who don’t read barely have an advantage over those who can’t!!
Here is the key paragraph from the Brad Smart source for this info, Topgrading Tips (Vol 5, No. 14) What A Player Executives Read:
The bigger company executives read a couple of books per month, typically one fiction (for relaxation) and one good, solid non-fiction book – topics such as how international politics impacts business, best sellers such as Good to Great (Collins), and books on strategy, and finance (understanding the subtle implications of finance/accounting/M & A). Recently Kindle and iPad have captured the imagination of only a small percentage of our sample, but they are enthusiasts!
(Brad Smart surveyed 6500+ senior executives in his research).
My observations: first, successful leaders and managers keep learning. Second, reading books is still a key way to keep learning. Third, it is a good idea to read books for the purpose of learning that is specifically work-related, but it may be just as important to read fiction and other non-work related works.
To quote myself again, “the more you know, the more you know.”
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There is a lot being written about the way(s) the internet is stealing our ability to focus long and hard on a single thing – like a book. I have blogged about it recently.
But I would not give it up. It brings me too much – like Ebert!
And, now I tweet. (Follow me here). I suppose I use it too much to publicize our blog posts. I have not yet learned how to tweet well.
Roger Ebert won a webby, and gave his three word acceptance speech last night. (five word maximum. Watch the acceptance speeches here). Here was his speech, in full:
“Veni, vidi, vici.”
And here are a couple of paragraphs from his latest blog post, Tweet! Tweet! Tweet!:
I vowed I would never become a Twit. Now I have Tweeted nearly 10,000 Tweets. I said Twitter represented the end of civilization. It now represents a part of the civilization I live in. I said it was impossible to think of great writing in terms of 140 characters. I have been humbled by a mother of three in New Delhi. I said I feared I would become addicted. I was correct.
Twitter is now a part of my daystream.
I’ve made a change recently. After writing my blog, “The quest for frisson” and reading two recent articles about internet addiction, I have looked hard at my own behavior. For some days now I have physically left the room with the computer in it, and settled down somewhere to read. All the old joy came back, and I realized the internet was stealing the reading of books away from me. Reading is calming, absorbing, and refreshing for the mind after hectic surfing. Chaz and I have quiet chats where we sit close and she talks and waits for my reply and this is soothing after the online tumult. I like the internet, but I don’t want to become its love slave.
…women make the best tweeters. They tweet more about life, and less about facts. Okay, so tell me I’m wrong.
We read to learn and connect and think and grow. Ebert is one that I read to keep learning and hopefully keep growing. I still read books – - fairly thoroughly and carefully. But there are so many books, and then so much more, to read…
(follow Ebert on Twitter here).