Such a topic might seem surprising on a book blog. We at Pages Unbound, after all, obviously love reading. So much so that we not only started a blog to talk to other book enthusiasts about what we are reading, but also periodically write on topics such as how to normalize reading as a fun hobby, how to promote literacy, and how to support one’s local public library, so that others can continue to have access to books. But the question remains. Just because we love books, does everyone else have to? And, really, I don’t think everyone does.
Of course, the immediate response to my assertion that not everyone has to love reading with a passion is that reading has been shown to have many benefits—especially for children and students. A quick internet search of the benefits of reading indicates that studies suggest reading supports cognitive development, language skills, and future academic success. Other benefits could include stress reduction, increased empathy, and even changed behavior (such as a greater likelihood to vote, based on what story one recently read). With such positive outlooks, surely everyone should love to read so they can enjoy all these benefits! Yet, I think we need to be realistic here. Not everyone will love reading and some will find similar benefits through other hobbies—and that does not mean these people have somehow failed life.
The big push for people to become readers arguably begins in school—and we can see why from the studies above. Reading competently seems to mean that students perform better in all academic subjects, not just English class. And this makes sense. Reading is still one of the primary ways students take in information; being able to read and understand the textbook in science class or history class or math class surely will help students earn higher grades in those classes. So here the argument seems to be that encouraging a love of reading in students means that they will naturally read more. This in turn means that they will get more practice reading (and hopefully increase their vocabulary and comprehension skills) and then they can read anything with ease, meaning that they can learn about and excel in any subject.
Reading, historically, has also been understood to have a moral component, especially for children, and so tends to get prioritized as a “good” hobby for people to engage in. You can see this today in the culture wars over what is “appropriate” for school libraries and arguments that hinge on “protecting the children.” You can see it in reviews that reach conclusions such as, “But the bully didn’t get a comeuppance, so this book is not suitable for kids,” or, “The protagonist ended the book with low self-esteem and never accepted her body the way it is, so I wouldn’t give this to my children.” The idea is that books for children must impart a Good Message to the readers, so that they learn and become better people and citizens. But reading is still seen as a Moral Activity for adults, too.
The idea of reading as a morally superior hobby might be said to date back at least to the Victorian era, when Matthew Arnold published his 1869 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. Readers are, if you read the news or even listen to readers themselves, somehow engaging in a hobby that is often seen to be more worthwhile than other people’s hobbies.
But, of course, one thing we have to consider is that any person reading a lot is not necessarily achieving a higher literacy rate. That is, reading many books is not the same as understanding them. Reading many books that are not challenging will not result in growth for a student. Reading books too fast or mindlessly will not allow an individual to comprehend them and analyze them at a higher level. And this is where parents and educators who speak against certain popular series or book forms can be heard wishing they could hide such books from children. Because, unstated but implicitly understood, is the assumption that a love for reading will result in children doing it more—and then progressing to higher-level texts.
It is unpopular for one to say that children should not read only comics, or that that they should branch out from illustration-heavy texts like Wimpy Kid, but if the whole idea of letting kids read what they want is that they become academically successful, then getting stuck on a third-grade level book series for the rest of their lives is not actually helping them succeed. One can, of course, love comics and illustrations and also be capable of reading, comprehending, and analyzing more complex texts without illustrations. No one is denying that. But, again, the implicit argument in the “let children read what they want” movement is that they will do it so much, they will eventually, without realizing it, move on to more difficult books without noticing they are learning something. However, if we are honest with ourselves, not everyone will—not without outside motivation. Just loving reading isn’t always going to be enough for a person to understand what they are reading or to encourage them to challenge themselves with harder books. Sometimes, just having fun with a hobby isn’t enough for someone to become good at it.
And, from the other perspective, one could argue that a love for reading is not wholly necessary for learning. One can safely assume that most students do not have a burning passion for every single subject they learn in school—but you will find many straight “A” students nonetheless. Some of them who probably don’t even like some of what they excel at. They’re just putting in the work because they understand it has some higher purpose than their current personal enjoyment. Perhaps, then, one could suggest that students can learn reading comprehension and analysis without loving literature, as long as they understand that reading well will at the very least help them with their other goals in life such as going to college or getting a job.
And the other, non-academic benefits reading offers can be found in other hobbies. Reading is supposed to help cognitive development and prevent mental decline. However, other hobbies that require focus and mental acuity probably offer the same thing. A musician or a chess player, for instance, could probably experience similar benefits. Stress reduction? What about gardening or painting or coloring? Even empathy could probably be learned from other modes of storytelling such as movies, TV shows, and even video games. People who do not read for fun are not necessarily doomed to a lifetime of stress and mental sluggishness.
Again, I love reading and I do think it is worthwhile to encourage a love of reading and increased literacy in the general population. I acknowledge that reading has many benefits, and of course I want people to excel academically and to experience stress-free lives! I even concede that children who play video games all day probably are not getting the same benefits they would if they were reading (especially if those video games have no literacy or educational component—which many do not). At the same time, however, I think the discourse over a love of reading sometimes comes across as judgmental and unwelcoming, as if anyone who does not love to read as a hobby is somehow either morally bankrupt or not intellectual. And that’s not true, especially for adults who are not in school anymore and can largely be assumed to be at least literate enough to function in society and at their jobs. They aren’t worse people just because they do not love to read, or because they choose to learn through other formats such as documentaries, videos, or podcasts.
So, I’m going to say it. I think it would be nice if everyone loved to read. I think it would even be helpful on an individual level for someone to love to read. At the same time, I can accept that not everyone loves to read, and some people probably never will, no matter how many seemingly fun or enticing books we place in their hands. It doesn’t make them bad people, though, and it doesn’t mean that people who love to read are somehow superior. That’s the kind of discourse I wish we would stop. The kind that shames people who do not like to read, and suggests that they failed at life or failed at “being smart.” That’s the kind of discourse that will, in fact, keep some people from ever trying to be part of the reading community, either because they will think they’re not capable of living up to the “intellectual” label or because they don’t want to be a part of what looks like a mean clique where readers make fun of outsiders. Instead of shaming people who do not love reading, we should simply continue modeling and explaining what makes reading fun. And hope that our enthusiasm and understanding invites more people into the community.
What do you think? Does everyone need to love reading in order to become competent at reading? Is it okay if someone loves reading but never progresses to higher-level texts in school? And is it okay if some people never become avid bookworms?
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