Saturday, November 8, 2014

Reading Isn't Only Fundamental, It's Vital

According to the Pew Research Center, twenty-three percent of Americans did not read one digital or print book or listen to one audio book in 2013.  Let me restate that: almost one quarter of the American population did not read any sort of book last year.  Go back thirty-five years to 1979 --when there were no ebooks and audiobooks were specialized options only for those with vision difficulties-- and that number was a mere eight percent.

Think about that for a moment. We have so many more formats for books now: one can listen to an audiobook on a podcast, have a thousand books ready to peruse on a tablet or ereader or cell phone. Yet nearly every one of four Americans didn't read any book in any format. It has been suggested that people think reading is a luxury for which they have little time. Yet they have time to watch idiots glorified on "reality" television in the name of entertainment.

I cannot tell you how appalling it is to be at a book festival and have people tell you they don't read. Why the hell are they at a book festival then? Just for the freebies? Probably. But what truly makes me sad is the fact these people are proud to say they do not read.

Another type of person vows they never read anything but nonfiction. They have no idea how limiting that is.

Recent research indicates reading fiction actually improves critical thinking. It enhances empathy and insight because the reader must put themselves in the character's place. Perhaps this is how the "culture of mean" has thrived in society. Fewer and fewer people reading fiction means fewer people are willing to look at different perspectives or sharpen their wits. Aristole claimed that reading poetry (fiction) is better at challenging the mind than memorizing facts.

Photo: wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8e/Richard_Burton
Richard Burton read as many as seven books every day of his life from the time he first learned to read. Coming from a poor Welsh mining background, reading was essential--not only to improve his vocabulary but to allow him to project himself into other lives and unfamiliar situations. Add the genetics and culture to cultivate that incredible voice and no wonder the man became a great actor. Dylan Thomas wrote the role of First Voice in "Under Milk Wood" with Burton in mind, and no one will ever be able to read that role with as much depth and inflection.

Americans won't read one book in a year and this man read seven every day. Hell, I'm happy to read two in a week--but now I have a real goal to shoot for, don't I?

If we are to become a caring society we need to cultivate a love of fiction in our children and ourselves. As writers, we need to produce compelling stories that truly transport our readers into unfamiliar places and events, work to make them feel what our characters are experiencing.

We need to get that percentage of non-reading Americans down to single digits as it was in the seventies, no matter the format. We'll all benefit from increased empathy in the end.

Happy writing, 



Julie Eberhart Painter said...

I am horrified to find this percentage true.

Your theory that reading fiction encourages empathy is new to me. I might have been seeded in Einstein's thoughts when he said to enhance imagination, "Read fairytales, and then read more fairytales" to our children.

Rhobin Lee Courtright said...

Reading's benefits and the numbers who no longer read always fascinate me. It is an appalling statistic, but it probably includes those who can't read English, which is a growing percentage of the total population, at least here in U.S. The high school rates of dropouts and those graduating from high school who can't read is equally awful and needs correction before these levels change. Poverty and interference from local, state, and national government plus politics are key reasons.

Big Mike said...

I think 25% non readers is too low. Every watch when they interview people on the street and they know nothing about anything. Sad, really sad.


Jude Johnson said...

Julie, here is a quote from research done on reading Harry Potter:
"We’ve all experienced that feeling of complete immersion when reading a great piece of fiction. Often described as ‘getting lost in a book’, the feeling is so common and so powerful, and yet the science behind it has so far been very little studied. So a research team from the Free University of Berlin in Germany decided to investigate by watching what happens inside the brains of readers when they get immersed in some great Harry Potter narratives.

The team, led by psychologist Chun-Ting Hsu, decided to test the validity of what they refer to as the 'fiction feeling hypothesis’. This theory states that narratives with emotional content prompt readers to feel empathy towards the protagonists - a feeling that's activated by a special neural network located in the anterior insula and mid-cingulate cortex regions of the brain. And of course, by promoting feelings of empathy in the brain, emotionally charged narratives will almost always be more immersive than stories with more neutral or plot-heavy content."

The article I read earlier was from my son's liberal arts university Alumni magazine and quotes other psychology researchers as well.