Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The End of Reading?

By Paul...

“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.

* * *

From Kathrin:

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?



  1. Awesome post, Paul....

    I think the problem is both bigger and less depressing than Mr. Skube makes it out to be. It's not just college students who don't read: it's everyone. But I don't think it's a hopeless situation at all, as proven by the success of the Harry Potter books and of the DaVinci Code. Many book people actively disdain DVC, but I love it - it's causing people to read fiction - and better yet, crime fiction - who've never read fiction before.

    Regarding your question about how to get people to read, I always start by asking about it..."Have you read DVC?" It's a great conversation starter. If they've read and liked it, I ask which bits they liked most, and recommend authors whose work plays into that.

    The other thing I do is just hand people a couple of books that I've picked out for them: "Here. Read these." As often as not, they come back to me to ask for more of the same. I find that most people are willing to read, they just don't know where to start -

  2. This is an interesting but truly horrifying post. With all the money poured into education, how can so many high school graduates not know their own native language? Something is very, very wrong.

    And while I understand Rae's point, that The DaVinci Code does at least get people to read, I have to wonder if it would have been taken so seriously if people had read more to begin with. I have noticed how many people seem to think it accurately portrays history, and that is a scary as the article you pointed out in your post.

    We are becoming a society of people who don't read, can't understand their own native language, and can't distinguish fact from fiction. That should alarm not just avid readers and writers, but everyone. How can such a society be expected to vote intelligently? How can it preserve itself at all?

    I have always loved to read; I can't understand why so many people avoid it. With all the wonderful books out there, it would seem anyone could find something to interest them. Your question is an important one, but it seems to me akin to pointing out an anorexic standing in a bakery shop full of mouthwatering aromas and asking how you can persuade them to eat.

    It seems to me the best we can hope for is the development of a two-tiered society; those who read, and are thus able to think and communicate effectively, at the top, and those who don't read filling jobs suited only for drones at the bottom. If we could drive home to non-readers the fact that is the all but inevitable result of avoiding books, perhaps that would motivate them to take up reading.

  3. This must be the day for it. Paul, I recommend you ship yourself and your blog readers over to Rick Riordan's blog momentarily:


    Rick is a novelist for both adults (The Tres Navarre P.I. series) and Young Adult (the Percy Jackson and the Olympians, which is a hell of a lot of fun and I recommend them for all adults). He's also a former middle school English teacher who still volunteers as a reading tutor. He has two sons, I think 8 and 11, and neither are particular readers, and he blogged today and earlier this week about problems with Newberry Awards and the whole issue of getting kids to read.

    And it is a problem. My oldest son is a fanatic reader who wants to be a writer for TV and novels (hey Paul, can I send him off to spend time with you?), but my youngest, 8, although a good reader, rarely reads voluntarily. We really have to look for books at his level that he will think are fun.

  4. Parents, read to your kids, starting as soon after birth as you can. Make it part of their (and your) routine. Make it fun. Take the time ~ it's an incredibly bonding experience. Gift them with books. Let them see you read for enjoyment...introduce them to the library...get them their own library card...take them to story hour at the library...make reading and books a part of their lives. I don't believe it's all that difficult and, in my opinion, it's just as important (if not more) as the varied after school activities.

  5. It stands to reason that if students don't what a barge is, they don't need to know what an anchor is. Maybe if they knew that Cleopatra owned a barge, they'd learn more vocabulary. Her hiatus in Rome was extemely cool.

  6. I'm probably out of the loop on this subject, but here's my take. I didn't read for pleasure in college, either. Who had the time? I read text books and assigned literature. Once that was completed, all I wanted to do was see a movie and rest my brain. As an adult, I resumed reading for pleasure and still contribute mightily to the publishing industry's bottom line.

  7. IMO a big piece of the problem with the poor state of of literacy and fluency in this country goes back to the expectations we place upon pre-collegiate education.

    When I was growing up (twenty-five years ago, when dinosaurs still walked the Earth and "TV" referred to three networks, a local UHF station offering daily GILLIGAN and MUNSTERS re-runs, plus PBS which nobody watched anyway), "English" class consisted of pretty much two things: reading (which we hated) and writing (which we hated more).

    Nowadays, my own kids (scattered in ages across the pre-school to junior high spectrum) read daily (required in this household) but do very little writing in or for school. They take lots of multiple choice tests, and quizzes where they circle the word or construction which is (allegedly) incorrect, but seldom are they tasked with planting ass in chair and putting words on page to effectively communicate.

    And I'm sure I understand why this is: handwritten papers take more time to grade, plus they require a subjective analysis which the modern education system tries to avoid as often as possible. Far better these days to hide behind curves and charts and stadardized results that can be quantified and tabulated and offered in legal proceedings as proof that nobody suffered due to (gasp!) subjective grading.

    When Jimmy's parents complain that "it's not fair that you gave him a B+ when other kids got an A!", the school district would rather have impersonal computerized test reults to back their case than merely the word and impression of a well-trained teacher who read each of that group's 23 essays on "What I Did This Past Summer" and decided (fairly, if sadly) that Johnny boasted the expressive abilities of a rutabaga.

    Teacher gets calld in to argue and justify her findings. Parents raise a stink. Lawyers possibly enter the scene. Teacher has to waste more time and effort defending the grade rather reading and grading other papers. Teacher has the little light bulb go on as she realizes there is a way around this annoying situation.

    Result? Mizz 4th Grade Teacher assigns less writing and more worksheets, and we end up with kids who are challenged less and less often to read solid examples of English, who are less often expected to create examples of same themselves, but who are also far less likely to stir up complaints about the grading and scoring.

    Johnny Can't Read?

    Hey, no prob-- Johnny can't write, either, and neither can his peers, so there's less and less reason for Johnny to read in the first damned place.

    On the bright side, anyone who *can* effectively string together words to form a cohesive sentence seems like a damned magician these days. The trick now is finding an audience still willing to pay for magic.

    Here endeth the rant.
    dismounting the soapbox B

  8. Hi, Paul.
    This is a bit "after-the-fact" but I just saw Skube's article again. It surfaced as a "back-up" assignment left for substitute teachers - the teacher had left it in a file folder in case she didn't have time to make up lesson plans. There was a generic "who what when" current events handout and xerox copies of the articles, to be used by HS 10th graders. I re-read this article while they were doing their timed essay on "Three Goals for the School Year."
    As a new teacher, I have an alternative explanation for the apparent lack of reading, and(lack of)comprehension when reading occurs. Students are rarely rewarded for reading. Teachers are evaluated largely by things their supervisors can SEE and HEAR when they come into the classroom, like discussions, group work on posters, students' oral answers to the teacher's questions, etc. As a student teacher, my supervisors NEVER read any of the essays I had the students right. Not one word for a whole semester! I was evaluated solely on the basis of how well the class seemed to be functioning when they were in the room. One of the activites students and veteran teachers expect to see is a "whole class discussion" of the book. Usually the teacher introduces some topic from the book and then asks the class, "Who can raise their hands and tell me the main characters in this book?" Usually there are only 4 or 5 kids willing to volunteer this information, so if a few have read the book, the rest of the class benefits from their effort. Most of the tests and quizzes are open book. My supervisor during student teaching was annoyed with me for giving the class a 10-point closed book quiz. It seems that it is all part of a lack of accountability. Kids will only do what they're rewarded for doing, so they have every incentive to spend their time getting their math or science work done and letting their die-hard reader classmates help them out with the reading for English. And don't even get me started on teaching vocabulary in context! The few veteran teachers who do teach vocabulary often use "canned" curriculums such as workbooks. My attempts to have students create their own vocabulary lists based on the reading have been at times viewed with suspicion. So until things change in the teaching profession (how about not letting coaches teach core academic subjects, for a start?) I think you're going to see more of the same syndrome that Skube reports.
    (BTW, I'm a writer, published locally in nonremunerative venues, and I thrive on substitute and part-time teaching jobs.)