Is Reading Really Such a Superior Hobby?

Reading has always seemed to have an aura of intellect and culture around it.  Parents and educators fear for the development of children who to prefer watch TV or play video games rather than read.  New acquaintances look impressed when they meet someone who says they read of their own accord.  And readers themselves sometimes look down on non-readers.  A societal consensus maintains that reading is a better way to spend free time than just about anything else.  However, if we look closely, we can see that this assumption is not necessarily self-evident.

Interestingly, reading is typically contrasted with “useless” activities or activities where people do not seem to produce anything.  Watching TV and playing video games are obvious culprits for “wastes of time.”  However, I have even seen one reader speak with contempt of adults who color.  Such adults “aren’t doing anything.”  The implied contrast is that readers are doing something.  But what?

The placing of reading on a pedestal might be said to date back at least to the Victorian era, when Matthew Arnold published in 1869 his Culture and Anarchy.  Culture, especially literature, was supposed to save Victorian society from vulgarity and moral degeneracy.  By reading and engaging with ideas, an individual could improve themselves and thus improve their society.  Arnold’s ideas continue to influence our thoughts on reading today as defenders of literature argue that it can make individuals into better critical thinkers and more empathetic people.

Such arguments, however, assume that readers are always reading actively, that they are engaging with texts, thinking about them, searching for their strengths and weaknesses, considering where they agree with texts and where they diverge from texts.  In reality, we cannot know that any given reader is doing this when reading.  A person who watches TV mindlessly could also read a book mindlessly.  (And, of course, a person who reads actively could also watch TV actively.)  The act of reading is not inherently beneficial; it is how one reads that makes reading potentially worthwhile.

Assuming that reading automatically grants individuals culture and improves their intellect is misleading.  It makes reading into an act of magic that requires little effort from the reader.  But unless readers are reading actively, their hobby is not necessarily more beneficial than any other hobby.

54 thoughts on “Is Reading Really Such a Superior Hobby?

  1. Never Not Reading says:

    I think you make some interesting points! I would like to mention, however, that there is SO MUCH RESEARCH indicating that kids who read in their leisure time are more likely to be successful in all areas of school, and more likely to be “successful” adults, whatever that means. The negative effects of too much TV for kids are well documented too. So while I agree, reading isn’t a “better” hobby than any other hobby FOR ADULTS, for kids reading is crucial and I think parents and teachers are right to try and cultivate that. (But coloring is a crucial activity for kids too!)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      I think that those studies may be particularly focused on attaining literacy skills. Children are still learning to decode complex sentence structures, understand cause and effect in the ordering of a piece of writing, learning how to decode vocabulary from context clues. Those skills are going to help them succeed in school where they are still primarily learning through reading textbooks. Eventually, however, students should have attained enough literacy skills so they’re not longer primarily reading to figure out how to read, but reading to learn new things or respond to complex ideas.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ireadthatinabook says:

        But does having enough literacy skills mean there is nothing to gain by voracious reading of easy literature? I suspect that the fast reading speed I currently have is largely due to reading a lot as a child and that reading speed helps me to expand my reading today.

        Of course I do agree that if we want to really develop our reading we need to regularly push ourselves.

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          Well, I think the idea of “speed reading” has been largely debunked. You can, of course, read quickly–I do, compared to other people I know. But if we read too quickly, we also tend to miss things in the text. So it’s not all about speed. Sometimes you want to slow down, read a part carefully, maybe reread it a couple times.

          This also ties into the question of depth versus breadth. Many of us read a lot today–a lot more than people in the past would have. But those people in the past typically favored depth–rereading a book multiple times, maybe until they’d practically memorized it. This isn’t so much a thing now when we have 1) more books, 2) more access to books, and 3) a blogging schedule that might encourage us to read all the new releases, rather than do rereads. But it was a valued way of reading for a very long time, and many people still read that way. I actually had an instructor who told us his class way about how to read slowly.

          So my main point is really that we’re assuming most people who read for fun or as a hobby already have basic literacy skills. Presumably they’re reading because they enjoy it and it’s second nature to them at this point–it’s not a struggle. So what makes reading an intellectual hobby that impresses people? Why are people amazed if you read for fun but not if you play video games or color or do latch hook or something?

          Simply reading a lot of books isn’t inherently more impressive than making a lot of latch hooks–both things can be done quickly. It’s not the speed that makes reading a worthwhile activity, I think. It’s HOW we read, how we engage with the text, how we critique it, challenge it, and respond to it. That doesn’t have anything to do with speed.

          Liked by 1 person

          • ireadthatinabook says:

            Oh, I’m not talking about speed reading but in my experience normal reading speeds also keeps increasing, at least until it is no longer the reading but the pace of the story that sets the limit. Being a reasonably fast reader also means that it is easier to find time for rereading, which I agree is an excellent way to get to know a book better. I would also argue that if someone reads a lot, even if it is all easy reads, they will most likely gradually broaden their reading and improve some of the other reading skills, at least that is my own experience.

            When I left children books behind (or mostly behind, I still re-read some of it), I had a rather long period when I didn’t feel at home in adult fiction (despite certainly having the necessary basic literacy skills). If I hadn’t loved reading so much before I could easily have lost track of reading then. Instead I found a temporary reading home in the adult Fantasy and Crime fiction. These were largely easy reads but as I read them I gradually got better at identifying quality differences. I also expanded my reading within the genres and started to read crime classics etc., which helped me understand and appreciate older fiction. Eventually the step into general fiction wasn’t as daunting and now I’m happy to read things that challenge me in various ways. I just realize that I probably wouldn’t be at this stage without those years of lighter fiction.

            However, I do agree that it is nothing very virtuous or intellectual about reading things that don’t challenge us, and that it is strange that all types of reading is for some reason seen as impressive.

            Liked by 1 person

      • Never Not Reading says:

        I would argue that one never stops figuring out how to read while one is reading, but you’re right, for the most part reading becomes more leisurely as you get older. Which is why reading is such an important pass-time for kids. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Kat @ Novels & Waffles says:

    What a great post! Honestly, I love all of your discussion posts because they are well articulated, beautifully written, and they get me to think! I’ve never thought much about watching TV actively, but it’s definitely something you can do! I guess it’s not so much what we choose to spend our time on, but HOW we do it. Do we use the time as a way to stretch our minds and to learn OR are we just marshmallows with our brains turned off? I think there is an appropriate time for both. Hopefully some of my rambling makes some sense to you!

    Again, thanks for a great article 🙂

    Like

  3. Shannon @ Shelfish For Books says:

    This is a really interesting discussion post! Definitely gives us some food for thought! 💕

    Like

  4. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    I think this partially comes back to the literacy skills vs. critical thinking that we’ve been discussing on the blog. People tend to be fixated on “knowing to read” and “learning vocabulary” and ” increasing your reading level” or whatever, not so much about whether you thought about the complexities of the book, whether that’s how it’s structured or what messages it’s conveying or what symbolism it’s using or anything like that. In that sense, reading is always more active than watching TV because you have to do the “work” of reading the words on the page, while the scenes on TV can just flash by while you gaze into the distance. But in terms of thinking critically about what a work is doing? Reading isn’t really better than watching TV or analyzing music or analyzing a video game, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, that makes sense to me. A lot of people do seem to equate reading with literacy skills, but, at some point, most of us acquire basic literacy skills. Of course, we can work on reading more challenging texts, but the basic tools are there–we know already how to approach the text, how to use outside resources to help us decipher it, how to annotate, etc. So we should look beyond basic literacy and comprehension skills when we read and try to engage with the actual content.

      Like

  5. Lori @ Betwined Reads says:

    Really great food for thought. Reading definitely benefits from a sense of prestige associate with it, but the further I’ve gotten into book blogging the more quickly I’ve realized that avid readers (at least those that blog) are not necessarily brilliant or even intelligent.

    In fact, I think the pressure we put on ourselves to read as much as possible hinders our ability to think critically and linger with the books we read. Also, it keeps us from interacting with society, if all we’re doing is reading and looking down on others who don’t. So how are we readers to improve society at all?

    It probably makes us more empathetic than the average person, so that’s probably something . . . But taking the reading further than enjoying and meme-ing the reading experience and fangirling over our favorite characters is where there needs to be further discussion . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bridget says:

      This is such a great point! Even though someone might be reading 100 books in a year, as so many love to boast about in our book community, it does not make them any more intelligent than anyone else. And you are so right — I guarantee you that a least a few of the people who read at a super fast pace aren’t taking in all the information they’re reading, but rather just skimming pages to hit their reading challenge for that year.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

        I don’t like to mention it a lot because it seems overly critical of other bloggers, whom I actually like to support, but there are definitely a few who seem to read so fast that they don’t really know what they’re reading. I have seen people consistently get basic points of book plots and messages wrong. :/

        Liked by 1 person

  6. MetalPhantasmReads says:

    Really cool post! I think is a great activity since it can help you use different parts of your brain. It’s sad that some people seeing reading as a “mindless activity” :/ I think it’s a great way to learn, increase our perspectives and all that stuff. Great discussion 🙂

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Well, I think reading can be a mindless activity! I know people who are swayed by whatever argument they see at the moment. So if they read an argument saying narwhals are the best animal, they’re all about narwhals. Give them an argument that bison are the best animals five minutes later and suddenly they’re all about the bison. If we aren’t actively thinking about what we’re reading, if we’re not looking for the strong and weak points of both arguments, not asking questions, not responding to the texts–then reading is pretty mindless and perhaps not worth doing.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Bridget says:

    You always have such thought provoking posts! I am so in love with your blog and your mind!

    I think this greatly depends on what you’re actually reading. If you’re reading nonfiction or even a remarkable fiction story that teaches you something, then it would be really unfair for anyone to call that a waste of time.

    (But even if you’re just reading a fancy romance or a thrilling mystery, where you’re not actually learning about the secrets of the universe, then I would still never call that “wasting time,” but rather… restoring your mental health. Everyone deserves a break from reality every now and again.)

    However, your argument about reading a book actively — or even watching TV actively — all has the potential to teach you something, shape how you think, and thus change how you react with others.

    So, I would never judge anyone’s hobby (or at least try not to) — whether that be video games, coloring, or reading — to be a waste of time. And you’re right, reading is not a superior hobby as movies and TV can teach us valuable things just in a different medium.

    Great discussion topic!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      That’s a great point. I think we all do read mainly for entertainment/to rest sometimes. And that’s okay! That’s important! However, it is interesting to me that most people seem to assume that this is not the norm. If I am seen reading in public, I actually have people stop by and tell me, “I must be so smart” and other such things. Whereas, if I am watching a film, most people would automatically assume that this was for entertainment/relaxation purposes. No one’s going to stop me on the street and marvel that I watch movies. And yet I know many people who watch films and pull them apart the same way I would pull apart a book!

      And I think there’s some danger in this. There’s the danger that readers will look down on non-readers, which is hardly charitable and definitely not welcoming. But I think there’s also the danger that we can be tempted to allow ourselves to slide and not do the hard intellectual work. After all, I can get all the benefits of being assumed intelligent if people see me reading or see me reading a lot–as if more books=greater intelligence. I could read 200 books a year, not understand them, and never engage with them, and be thought brilliant! It’s a bargain! So I think it helps to remember that reading isn’t inherently better than doing a great many other things. It’s what we do with the things that we do in our free time that can help make them valuable.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Bridget says:

        Yes! So many greats points and I 100% agree with you! There are many thought provoking films out there and that’s why movie critics exist. It’s a bit depressing for one to assume that a movie critic is less intelligent then someone who reads numerous books a year even if that reader didn’t gain anything from it.

        I would like to say this doesn’t happen often, but that would be a lie. It’s a long time assumption that if you’re literate, you’re also intelligent. This has quickly turned into a stereotype that bookworms must be well educated.

        Like

  8. bathandbooks says:

    Great post – I think it’s a shame we see reading as being more worthwhile because reading as well as things like colouring or watching TV can also just be used as a mindful way to spend time relaxing, or can indeed be a “waste of time”. However, from a mental health perspective I think as long as you are relaxing and enjoying yourself, they are all worthwhile hobbies 🙂

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I think our society values producing things. Giving yourself a mental break therefore isn’t considered useful by a great many people. Even though allowing yourself relaxation will probably make you more productive in the long run.

      I’m personally trying to figure out ways to give myself more quiet time in the day. I don’t particularly care if it doesn’t impress people that I like to take walks or sit out in the yard or whatever. I’m happier than I would be trying to acquire a bunch of new skills to list for new acquaintances when we make small talk.

      Like

  9. Camilla @ Reader in the Attic says:

    Definitely agree! There’s also the idea (but maybe this requite it own discussion?) that people that read also have a certain culture, maybe for which regard the world and human moral in general. But is not truthful. I’ve seen plenty of people being reader, but when it came to serious matter, their voices did more hurt then good. Or even people of culture can use such culture to do ill or justify their own ideas.
    I hope I’m making sense in this discourse.

    But anyway, as a reader who is also a gamer, I’m always a bit disappointed in how sometimes game are looks down. Some game, especially the releases of this last years, have the major point of having a really good plot that could fit a book without not so many problems. It’s not just touching some buttons. XD

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Ah, yes, that’s the dilemma! There are studies suggesting that readers are more empathetic. However, when this comes up, someone inevitably mentions that a good many of the Nazis were cultured and read “good” literature. Clearly, reading a lot or reading classics or reading the “right” books didn’t make them better people. I think it comes back to what we do with the literature we read. If we don’t let it challenge us, if we don’t apply it to real-world situations, if we only consume it in the moment and let it go, I think change is going to be more difficult.

      Oh, definitely! I think one day video games will be accepted as a valid art form and object of study. Many of them are certainly complex or they’re doing interesting things by challenging people’s perspectives. I don’t really game myself, but I have read articles on some and how they’re being used to talk about difficult issues or to encourage creative thinking or to tell involved narratives. I think it’s only a matter of time before more people sit up and take notice.

      I was thinking the other day how, ten years ago, a graphic novel (or comic book back then, probably) was not considered real literature. Now I see graphic novels on school lists! It took time, but graphic novels are being recognized! (I think they were recognized in the academy long before teachers and librarians got on board, actually. The same thing will probably happen with video games. If enough college courses teach them, the new wave of educators will see them as valid when they graduate, use them in schools, and thus validate them for society.)

      Like

  10. Debbie J says:

    I always find your discussion posts so interesting to read. I must say myself that I probably think better of people that read rather than people who don’t. on first impression that is, and end up thinking they’re more intelligent as an outcome of their hobby which definitely doesn’t turn out to be true in many a case.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think our society is set up so that we do automatically equate reading with intelligence. And even grammar and spelling with intelligence. But I know many people who don’t read or can’t spell and they’re amazingly deep thinkers! Many of them get their information from other sources such as documentaries or podcasts. So they’re still engaging with texts and actively thinking about–their texts just aren’t literary texts.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. erickaonpaper says:

    I love this post! I completely agree with actively engaging with text being beneficial to most readers, and that people who actively engage with film/puzzles/crosswords, etc, benefits them, too. I have a friend who does nothing but watch films all day, films spanning all genres and years and stories, and she is one of the most intellectual and eloquent people I know.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I know people who watch and analyze films and I am blown away! To me, doing that requires visual literacy, a skill I’m still practicing. I can analyze the plot, but I’m not going to be able to pick out details with setting, music, clothing, etc. At least not without watching again and actively looking! But other people seem to be more practiced and can discuss details with ease! It’s amazing to me! It’s different from what I do when I read, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a skill that needs to be developed. It’s not necessarily an easy thing to do!

      Like

  12. Grab the Lapels says:

    We’ve reached a golden age of storytelling in multiple platforms. TV shows are now narrative arcs rather than sitcoms. Think about Orange is the New Black, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, Sons of Anarchy–these are all narrative-driven TV shows. Then, there are narrative-driven videogames. Plays do not conquer or save; they engage in a story and make choices. There’s the Final Fantasy series, The Last of Us, and Heavy Rain. People get on Reddit and start threads about story-driven games. So, if anyone who claims TV or videogames are crap, I think they just haven’t tried other mediums.

    And just throwing this out there: when I see people doing reading challenges and get through 100 books in a summer, for example, I am really not impressed with their “superior” reading skills. However, I get the feeling this post is more about other hobbies compared to reading, which means I’m rambling.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes! I think eventually we’ll see TV and video games receiving more acceptance as art forms. Films are starting to get there. It’s not very impressive to people if you say you watch a movie every night, but films do have respected critics, so that’s something. (Also, as an instructor once pointed out to my class, you must say “films” not “movies” if you want to sound smart. XD) Maybe one day people will realize you can also watch TV or play video games and not necessarily be sitting there passively receiving images!

      Ah, yes. I have seen incredibly high numbers for the amounts of books people read. Like they read 3x the amount I do and I read an awful lot. I can’t help but wonder how many of those books they skimmed. There is something to be said for sitting down and reading slowly. You don’t want to be reading so fast that you miss parts or don’t understand things. I have seen reviews where people were talking about stuff that didn’t happen in the book.

      Like

  13. PerfectlyTolerable says:

    I love this post! I have had similar conversations. Most recently regarding my brother (who is 15 years younger than me) my parents complain he is on his phone too much but when I was his age I always had my head stuck in a book, and I wondered if it was really all that different. (They didn’t have a good answer haha)

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I suppose it comes down to what you’re doing while on your phone, just as it comes down to what you’re doing while reading. There’s a lot of talk about the “tech generation,” and people are excited that so many children are growing up with technology “second nature.” Except the majority of people aren’t necessarily coding their own apps. They might just be scrolling through feeds. I know plenty of people in Generation Z who can’t figure out how to use new programs by themselves. It’s not like being given an iPhone at the age of six made them able to do all tech things equally. They still need to press things and figure it out like everyone else.

      Like

  14. Sammie says:

    You’ve raised a lot of interesting points on this! I do prefer that people read to some extent, and I will always be an advocate for reading. BUT, and this is a big but, it isn’t the end all, be all hobby. So you read one book a month? Great! It’s not a race. I read, but I also watch TV. I also play video games. I also crochet. I also color.

    Reading is great, and there are lots of benefits you get from it … sometimes. If, as you say, you’re actively reading and not skimming or not thinking about the text. Other hobbies also have benefits. Take coloring, for example. Some benefits, off the top of my head: working hand/eye coordination, color distinction, firing up all the creative centers in the brain, releases endorphins, generally tends to lower blood pressure/increase mood, improved hand dexterity.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I do think it’s actually possible to read too much. I think people SHOULD be well-rounded individuals who try out other hobbies or go for walks or see their friends once and a while! We don’t want to prioritize reading so much that we’re missing out on other things.

      And, yes! Other hobbies can have benefits! Playing video games might be one person’s way of relaxing/taking a mental break–or a way to socialize with their friends or family. They don’t need to write a dissertation on it afterwards for it to be a good use of their time!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sammie @ The Writerly Way says:

        Friends? What are those? xD You mean other people exist outside of the pages and the internet? 😮

        Although, I do want to see that. A proper, thorough dissertation on why Fable is awesome and Microsoft needs to go ahead and come out with another one already. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  15. Sharing Inspired Kreations says:

    Great points! I never really thought about that before, but that totally makes sense! I guess one thing reading has over watching TV that engages the mind more (even if you’re “mindlessly reading”) is that you need to use your imagination. The TV gives shows and tells you, whereas the book only tells you. So in that way, your brain is working slightly more?

    Like

  16. Charvi says:

    This is a very thoughtful post and you bring up such good points! We’re not always contemplating about what we’re reading! In some cases watching TV can be more productive than reading too.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      True! I don’t think reading is necessarily more intellectual than other activities! It depends on what we’re doing while reading! And, of course, reading can just be to relax or destress. But, then, why do some people act like reading’s better than knitting or sitting outside watching the road? Those things are relaxing to people, too. But people don’t get all superior about them!

      Like

    • Krysta says:

      Well, I think if someone can give me an in-depth analysis of the storyline of a game or otherwise analyze it, they’re doing similar work to analyzing a book. It would just require more visual literacy than textual literacy.

      Like

  17. gargdrneeti says:

    I believe in the old saying that books opens the doors of the world of knowledge . From taboo topics to general knowledge to humour to fiction to travel to romance etc etc. I found everything in books.

    Like

  18. Paper Worlds says:

    This is a fantastically interesting topic and something I have thought about myself to some degree. I would still argue that reading encourages imagination since you a required to fill in more gaps when reading compared to watching TV, but I agree with you that the key is how engaged you are with the hobby. Like you say, you can actively watch TV or passively read.

    Like

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