Must Reading Always Be Educational?

There’s a lot of advice out there on how to read the “right” books. Sometimes that means adults telling children (or other adults!) comics and graphic novels are not “real” books. Sometimes it means readers telling other readers that listening to audiobooks “does not count.” Sometimes it means articles denouncing all readers of YA books as unintelligent and unable to move on from their youth. Sometimes it means readers of romance being told their preferred books aren’t “serious” enough. No matter what you like to read, at one point or another, it is very likely that you have been told it’s wrong for you to read it, and that you would be better off–more cultured, more educated, more respected–if you would read something else.

At the heart of the reading debates seems to lie a shared cultural assumption that reading is somehow “good” for people. There is an assumption that reading is superior to other forms of entertainment such as watching TV shows or playing video games and more profitable than other types of hobbies. (For example, I once read a post where the writer chastised a grown woman for “wasting her time” by indulging in adult coloring books when she could be doing something valuable–like reading.) As a result, people are expected always to be doing the type of reading that leads to some sort of personal betterment. They are not expected to be reading for fun.

Other hobbies do not seem to inspire quite the same level of shaming that reading does among its enthusiasts. I have yet, for instance, to read an argument decrying all the viewers of Disney+ for wasting their precious time on fictional cartoons instead of relevant documentaries or “important” artsy films. And I think that is because we still, as a society, have this idea that reading is–or should be–inherently beneficial. In contrast, streaming TV shows is seen as just for pleasure or relaxation–no one cares that much if you indulge in a Disney singalong instead of trying to make it through the Top 100 Most Important and Incredibly Cultured Movies of All Time.

However, when we are confronted with arguments about what we “ought” to be reading, we have to ask ourselves first why we are reading. Many people do read to learn new information or gain cultural clout. But many other people read primarily for enjoyment. If a person likes to relax on the weekend with an Amish romance, it does not make a whole lot of sense to attempt to shame them into reading Shakespeare instead. Amish romance is their genre. English renaissance drama is not.

Reading does, of course, have many benefits for individuals. Reading on grade level helps students understand their textbooks and achieve academic success. Reading helps us learn new things, visit new place, and experience new points of view. Reading can help us gain valuable critical thinking and communication skills. There have even been studies suggesting that reading literary fiction makes us more empathetic. But isn’t reading for pleasure and relaxation beneficial, too? We all need time to unwind, or even time to escape. So why do we have to shame people for what they read? What you read is up to you–and so is the value you find in it.

20 thoughts on “Must Reading Always Be Educational?

  1. Georgiana says:

    I see reading as a tool, and it depends on each of us how we use it. It can be a tool for studying, a tool for relaxing, or a tool for learning about our hobbies. It can also be a tool for socializing, if we think about book clubs πŸ™‚

    I think the educational aspect is (almost) always present, as a background, as we read books to find new things, read new stories, “meet” new characters. But reading only for the educational purpose is not what reading is about, from my honest point of view.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      Yes! Though we can and do get educational benefits from reading, I don’t know that I regularly sit down and think to myself, “Aha! Time to get cultured today!” Sometimes, of course, I read something so I can know what everyone else is talking about. And sometimes I specially read to learn new information. But, very often, I just read because it’s relaxing!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Raka says:

    I agree with you. I do sometimes end up regretting doing other stuff instead of reading, like watching movies, because I feel that my time would be ‘wasted’ haha πŸ˜€
    I think we can learn something from everything, whether it’s a book, movie, or a TV show πŸ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Never Not Reading says:

    Wow, what a great post!!

    I think that, as you touched on, perhaps this idea of reading as a cultural benefit (rather than a hobby) is a direct result of teaching literature in school. We know reading is important for students to learn, and we attempt to expose them to “important” or “great” literature during their school years. Perhaps as a result there’s this residual cultural concept of reading to “better yourself.” Maybe if every student took a film or art history class we would feel the same about those mediums. Because I think there *is* a lot of similar snobbery in film, it just doesn’t get passed down to the Blockbuster-viewing masses.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      That’s a really interesting perspective! I think you’re right that there certainly is film snobbery out there, but I’ve never really thought about why it doesn’t seem to affect the casual watcher of movies.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more here! I think there are tons of benefits to reading to relax or for escapism etc (and even if people choose to read to relax, there’s a chance it could be educational in some way anyway eg teaching people about other life experiences, even in fantasy or contemporary, especially if it shows other cultures)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Samantha D. says:

    I feel like reading as a hobby is still to some extents looked at as “elite.” Back in the day, libraries were originally reserved for the rich and the “important.” We have obviously come a long way from that time, but part of me believes that some people still hold those stereotypes in their heart, which results in the putting down and judgement of others and their reading preferences. Personally, I love history and learning new things, but when I read I have a VERY heavy lean towards fiction. While most of what I read may not be heavy in facts, it is still rich in teaching me to be tolerant and conscious of others. To have empathy for people. Something that is severely lacking. I agree with our Orangutan Librarian here too; I’ve learned a lot about different cultures from reading fiction. So yes in theory, we should all mind our own and not worry about what others are reading for pleasure or for information. Unfortunately though, that never seems to be the case.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      That’s something I hadn’t considered! People do seem to think reading as a hobby is unusual and impressive. Perhaps they do still associate with some sort of intellectual elitism. Perhaps I didn’t consider this as I don’t FEEL particularly intellectual or elite while reading….

      Liked by 1 person

  6. storianblog says:

    Thank you for writing this! There are so many wonderful reasons to read – why limit yourself to just one? I personally like to read for many of the reasons stated above, but I also like to read to feel more connected with people. There is a wonderful quote from James Baldwin where he says (and I’m paraphrasing here), you experience something that you think only happened to you, and then you read a book and realize that the same thing happened many years ago to Dostoyevsky, and you realize you are not alone. I think reading creates that feeling in a lot of people.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. ofmariaantonia says:

    I think it’s good to have a balance. I remember a librarian who told me (11-year-old me) that I needed to more than just Snoopy comics for my Summer Reading List. I remember not being very happy about it at the time, but I’m glad now that she pushed me to read other books as well. She was the type of librarian to give recommendations. (Small town library!) The Snoopy books were bad, it’s just that it’s good to have a balance. I still read the odd Snoopy comic!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      That’s a great point! It’s good to have someone who can push us to try new things–sometimes we find things we love that we would otherwise have never discovered!

      Liked by 2 people

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