The Decline of Readership in America

Mercurio Rivera pointed me to this article from CBS online, about an NEA study on the dismal state of American literacy. To summarize: few kids are reading. I blame the usual suspects: poor parenting, video games, television, the hyperscheduling of children’s lives.

The thing is, the parents aren’t reading either. How do you engender in your children that which you do not do yourself? It ain’t easy.

When I was eight or so my father came home from the library with a box of more than a hundred old books they were discarding. Among them I discovered Heinlein, Asimov, Niven, and Lovecraft for the first time. In the winters, we’d vacation in Florida to visit my grandfather. I remember we went to this bookstore about a mile away and my father said to me, “I want you to buy five books.”

“Five?” I said, not sure if I understood correctly.

“Yes,” he said.

“Isn’t that a lot?”

“No,” my Dad said. “You need to read more.”

When I had begged my Dad for a G.I. Joe figure, one was too many. But now, books, something which I already loved, were offered to me by the bucketload. I was a kid in a candy (er, book) store, and my father had to literally drag me out two hours later because I was examining the cover of every single book. I wanted to read them all.

What I was aware of, even then, was that my father wanted to engender in me a love of reading. And he succeeded. To this very day, my fondest memories are sitting poolside in Florida, reading through science fiction novels about one every two days. I read Rendesvous with Rama there, as well as The End of Eternity. His attempts to create in me a love of reading succeeded. Part of that may have been my innate curiosity, but I’m not sure without that first push by my Dad if I’d be reading as much as I am today.

I’m curious as to what people’s experience is here, i.e., what was your initial push that spurred you to become the reader you are today? Was it something innate, or did your parents have a hand in it? If there’s a common ground here, perhaps we can encourage parents to do the same.

4 Replies to “The Decline of Readership in America”

  1. That’s very interesting because my experience in the library world is that there are more young people reading now than in the past few decades. We like to call it the ‘Harry Potter Phenomena.’

    And while it’s true that as the article states, reading a new Harry Potter book every 18 months does not translate into daily reading, I don’t know that the facts back it up.

    I hate surveys. Unless you got 100% involvement from all Americans, the number you present to me mean nothing. And you’ll never be able to have a survey that all Americans answer. Look at the census. Not everyone fills that out, but we make all sorts of suppositions from that. I can do a survey with 20 people and draw all sorts of conclusions from it that may or may not reflect reality.

    Parents need to be more involved in their children’s lives in positive ways. They do not need to try and run their childrens’ lives (a la helicopter parents), they need to set expectations on how to live your life and then let the child do it.

    Hmmm…I think I’ve veered off your question. So let’s move back to it. Books were always encouraged in my household. I don’t know where it started. Some of it was my mother, who would always say yes to a book at the grocery store when she said no to everything else, and some of it was my brother (six years older) who I wanted to be like more than anything. He belonged to the SFBC, and I read faster than he did. I took the books out of his room and read them while he was doing homework.

  2. For me, it was my older brother’s vast comic book collection that made me hungry to learn to read ASAP. Staring at the brilliant covers and colors, I was desperate to know what the characters were saying to each other. By first grade I had learned to read just for that purpose and was soon devouring every comic book I could find. This, in turn, led me to pick up regular books. I recall a 6th grade competition on who could read the most books in the school year, which also got me to turn the pages fast–but by then reading had already become a pleasurable hobby.

  3. I’ve heard that kids today are reading more, spurred on by Harry Potter, et al. It will be interesting to follow that group through adulthood and see if they continue to read.

  4. If I had children (or wanted them), I would read to them daily and encourage them to read daily – just as my mother did for me.

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