“Oh, this is depressing.”
That’s what I wrote in a posting on the “DorothyL Digest” over the weekend. I was talking about Michael Skube's op-ed column in Sunday’s Washington Post. Entitled "Writing Off Reading," Skube, a journalism professor at Elon University, bemoaned the current state of reading (or non-reading) among college students.
Let's admit up front we all have vested interests in the continuation of reading. Let's also say that all of us -- writers and readers -- cherish the written word. What's the future if college students have given up on reading for pleasure.
At Penn State's College of Communications, my alma mater, there's a "Paul Levine Reading Room," provided with the generous support of Hollywood TV executive and unrepenant New York Yankees fan Carmen Finestra. Does anyone use the room? I hope so...and not just to play Madden College Football./>">" border="0" alt="" />
Here's what Professor Skube has to say, in part, about the reading habits of his students at Elon University in North Carolina:
We were talking informally in class not long ago, 17 college sophomores and I, and on a whim I asked who some of their favorite writers are. The question hung in uneasy silence. At length, a voice in the rear hesitantly volunteered the name of . . . Dan Brown.
No other names were offered.
The author of "The DaVinci Code" was not just the best writer they could think of; he was the only writer they could think of.
In our better private universities and flagship state schools today, it's hard to find a student who graduated from high school with much lower than a 3.5 GPA, and not uncommon to find students whose GPAs were 4.0 or higher. They somehow got these suspect grades without having read much. Or if they did read, they've given it up. And it shows -- in their writing and even in their conversation.
Click here for the entire article.
I received several thoughtful e-mails in response. Here are some excerpts.
From Neil Plakcy, a Florida novelist (“Mahu”) who teaches at a community college:
I heartily second everything Skube has to say.
Last winter I experimented by adding three mystery novels to thedevelopmental writing course, figuring that just by reading, our students might improve their writing. In their exit questionnaire, 50% said they had never read a full-length novel before, and only one or two students had ever read a mystery novel before.
Our students have a terrible problem with cultural literacy as well. I asked
them to keep a vocabulary journal-- words from the books that they did not
understand, and then quizzed them at the end of the unit. The words they
didn't know included anchor, barge, debris, dock, forlorn, hiatus, idle and
I figure I am educating the next generation of mystery readers. This
experiment was so successful (and the faculty thought it would be more fun,
too) that this semester six different classes are reading Christine Kling's
“Cross Current,” which is particularly appropriate to us because of the setting (Fort Lauderdale's New River and environs) and the elements ofHaitian culture (we have a large Haitian community.)
* * *
Way to go, Neil. If reading mysteries doesn't grab them, what will? From Diana:
This is extremely damn scary. Extremely.
For at least 5 years I've been telling people that the educators and the publishers are missing the boat somehow, and nobody gets it. “Book people” are as a group complacent, and we need to be shook up so that we can make noise out there and push those who can, to do something.
* * *
A different point of view from Lula:
I don't think that kids who go to better universities and schools have the time to read for pleasure. I think that most of the kids who go to those schools are focused on what they need to do to get through school with good grades, which pretty much takes all their time. If they're lucky,
later on in life they will turn to reading.
* * *
I'm 22, I study law - and I'm a reader! It is the most important fact about me. You won't get "me" if you don't get how important reading is to me. It is like breathing. A day without at least one page read (for fun and pleasure) is a wasted day, it is as if I didn't live that day.
I know I could be much better in university if I spent less time reading "my" books instead of reading "university" books, but would I feel well? The answer is easy: No! It wouldn't feel right if I didn't read for pleasure whenever I can.
* * *
Okay! A young person who reads.
And this, from Cindy, a librarian in Hawaii:
During the summer I bribe teenagers to read and during the school year send them to all of the skinny Steinbeck books for their book reports.
Jane Austen doesn't exactly fly off of the shelves. But man, my manga collection and X-men graphic novels are in pieces after a few months of overuse.
Harry Potter has left me clinging to some hope, as how often do you have kids waiting in lines to buy a book? And while they may not be as rabid as Lord of the Rings fans and learn the entire elven language, some will at least wear the funny hats and glasses.
With all of the afterschool appointments, sports, and intense Playstation time, teens don't seem to have time for leisurely reading. But there is still this core audience of kids (aka "outcasts") who use the library often, read daily, and give me hope. I think that if there's encouragement (parents) and access (libraries), kids can be taught to read for fun.
* * *
Thank you, Cindy, and keep up the fight! Cindy, by the way, is a fan of both my old novels and the new Solomon vs. Lord series. "I love Jake's pathetic love life," she writes. What can I say...other than Jake's love life was modeled after mine?
Any ideas out there? If you're reading this, you love books. How do we get young people to read for pleasure?