It’s one of the first few days of summer. The breeze echoes my mood as it lazily blows the leaves of the tree I am under and even the sun saunters through the blue sky. Finally, as the stress of the school year melts like the ice in my glass, I pick up The Count of Monte Cristo, a novel I have been trying to read for the past six months. I flip to the first page, feeling a certain giddy excitement to begin my journey through the book. It only takes me 5.5 pages into the novel to start assigning multiple-choice question worthy traits to each character, to begin noticing seemingly significant quotations, and to initiate my inferences on the theme of the entire book. All of this happens only 5.5 pages in. By page 24, I have already devised several theme-based questions and short essay prompts that I was so accustomed to answering upon the completion of such a novel. On page 58, I can see the symbolism of the sea in this book and make a note to myself to remember it. Finally, on page 67, I realize that I have been reading this book like a student. And, as I reasoned, it was all for naught, because there would be no test on this material in the foreseeable future. This simple thought, I am ashamed to say, was enough to make me put the book down, despite the extremely compelling plot, and walk away.
There have been several studies published on the decline of readership both in the United States and elsewhere. However, as college students know quite well, reading is an everyday activity throughout the school year. We read numerous essays for philosophy classes, countless pages of science textbooks, and several novels in English classes. Most students even frequently read the newspaper or an online news source and Google information on topics of interest. Although it may seem that as we age, we read increasingly to keep up with our rigorous classes, this type of reading is different. We read for the sake of obtaining a good grade on an exam, for the sake of appearing to be educated at social events, for the sake of acquiring information. Far too many students (myself included), by the first semester of college or even high school, forget how to read for the sake of reading. And this is the kind of readership that these studies refer to when exposing its degradation in our society. In 1984, 31% of 17-year olds claimed that they read for fun, compared to 19% in 2012. In fact, about 65% of the non-readers in this age group admit to reading for pleasure less than 3 times a year. Another study conducted by the National Literacy Trust, studying 35,000 children from ages 8 to 16, reveals that the percentage of daily readers has decreased from 40% (2005) to 30% (2011) to 2% (2012).
Part of the problem may be increased distractions: it is becoming increasingly difficult to escape from the constant stream of emails, Facebook notifications, text messages, and phone calls. Additionally, newer technology, like tablets and smartphones, make watching mind-numbing YouTube clips, scrolling through a friend’s cousin’s boyfriend’s Twitter feed, or taking quizzes like “What’s Your Inner Potato?” increasingly easy. The entertainment that books provide is, in our modern view, inferior to that of television, video games, and Internet surfing. We prefer the fast-paced, the easy acquisition of answers, the “Search This Document” tool. As a teen culture, we cannot concentrate for hours on a particular state of thinking (in nonfiction) or storyline (in fiction) without being given an immediate reward. We cannot be expected to wade through 682 pages of character development and thematic exposition, unaware of the ultimate purpose. We cannot be bothered with the hassle of manually scanning an entire novel for a specific, significant quotation.
Unless it’s for a test.
This mindset of refusing to perform activities without adequate incentive exposes the primary problem in our education system. In a system where intelligence level is equated to numerical values of GPA’s and test scores, the pressure is amplified. Students must learn the fastest and most effective method of finishing their work before they can play, both in the short-term, in the completion of homework assignments, and in the long-term, in schooling for a particular career. Intelligence does not indicate the pursuit of knowledge for its pursuit, but for some other purpose. And, by designating the acquisition of knowledge as a stepping-stone to further success, the education system diminishes the passion of learning. In fact, learning is seen as a burden, a cumbersome task that must be completed before engaging activities that boost happiness. Living in this system has, in this way, trained us to logically reject reading for pleasure: if work is burdensome and pointless without an immediate reward, and reading for pleasure does not present an immediate reward, then reading for pleasure must be pointless.
Many students fall into this trap. English classes are meant to train us to argue articulately and expand philosophical understanding through both the coursework and the encouragement of life-long reading habits. However, it tends to foster a mindset, through multiple-choice questions and essay tests, assessing understanding and analysis of a work, that the end is the most important part. This mindset, which neglects to acknowledge the process of actually deriving complex thought through reading, leads to a skewed perception. Countless times, I have heard students that use online summaries in lieu of the novel claim that the information is the same, just simply condensed. What Sparknotes users fail to understand is that quickly grasping the plot, as a means to an end, is useless without having personally experienced the novel’s journey. Although the discussion that occurs upon completion of a novel is most meaningful, promoting the most insightful thoughts and applying the work to our lives, much of the pleasure in reading comes from the process.
And in the midst of our demanding academic workloads, hectic schedule of extracurricular activities, and social commitments, we rarely find the time or motivation to engage in this process. But, as I rediscovered my love for reading this summer, driven by the simple desire to learn through immersion in a novel, I realized that, even in the most chaotic schedules, there is time leftover. The only question is, will we spend it scrolling through an endless feed of social media or expanding our minds with a new perspective?
David, Alison. “Should We Be Worried about the Decline of Children’s
Reading?” Theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media, 01 Nov. 2013. Web. 29
“Children, Teens, and Reading Infographic from Common Sense Media.” Reviews & Age
Ratings. Common Sense Media Inc, 12 May 2014. Web. 29 Aug. 2014.