Some Recent Research on Reading

I love reading. I love books.

Anyone who has been in my home will know that I love books, because I have several thousand on my shelves. The vast majority of them are cataloged online. (Sometimes new ones sneak in and don’t get cataloged right away.)

Reading is such a significant part of our household that we have to discipline our children for reading rather than coax them to do so. This is little surprise since my wife and I both grew up as readers and continue to read a lot.

A National Survey on the State of Reading

A recent Pew Research report on reading piqued my interest because, well, I’m a book nerd. They did a study to see what the state of reading in the US is.

On the side of being interesting and somewhat surprising, despite the proliferation of online media, approximately the same number of folks said they had read a book in the past 12 months. About 73% of respondents say they’ve read a book in any format and about 65% say they have read a real book (i.e., not a digital book). Only about 6% of people have transitioned away from real books to entirely reading on screens. This is comforting, since it promises that our local libraries likely won’t get phased out by publicly funded internet kiosks in the near future.

Much less surprising was that the correlation between income, education, and reading seems to support the value of reading. Correlation does not equal causation. Thus, it may be that higher incomes provide more time for reading. Or, it may be that advanced education inculcates improved ability to read books. The data isn’t clearly causal. However, the correlation between apparent material success (as customarily defined) and reading is striking. It may be that there is a correlation between the discipline of reading and other important, higher order skills.

Children and Reading Habits

Findings from another survey, biennial research done by Scholastic, talk about about reading for children. Given that there appears to be a correlation between material success and reading, and that reading is just a great way to improve your mind, the Scholastic study is important as it shows some factors that influence kids’ desire to read. Again, correlation isn’t causation, but it might give hits about what causes it.

Public Domain Photo of Leeds Central Library, taken by Michael Beckwith.  http://ow.ly/PpWm304Gs9Y

Public Domain Photo of Leeds Central Library, taken by Michael Beckwith. http://ow.ly/PpWm304Gs9Y

As a bibliophile of the degree that some might describe as being a hoarder, the number of volumes in a library is significant to me. As it turns out, my library is way over the expected average. Of the survey respondents, those with children who were frequent readers indicated they had 205 books in the house; those with infrequently reading children had 129 books in their house.

These findings surprised me. First, I was surprised that the number of books for infrequent readers was not lower. I’ve been in the homes of some infrequent readers and usually they live in a book desert, with an occasional pamphlet, but very little in the way of real literature. 129 books in the home of non-readers is surprising to me; I would have expected many fewer.

Second, I was surprised to see the number of books in the homes of frequent readers at only 205. I have more than 200 books on several distinct subjects. I’ll admit that I have a bias toward owning books instead of borrowing them from the library, but that is because by offering a buffet of books to my children (and myself) I feel that I am encouraging them to read. Apparently the several hundred children’s books are overkill by contemporary standards.

Some other interesting data points that correlate with children being frequent readers are consistent with the usual suspects. Parents that read to their children frequently before kindergarten are much more likely to have frequent readers. School age children whose parents read to them presently are more likely to be frequent readers. Frequent computer use has a clear correlation to forming infrequent readers.

Some Thoughts on Reading and Quality Books

For the most part, the Scholastic survey is informative and interesting. However, there are a few items that might be cause for concern. The percentage of students who say they either like or love readings books has declined by about 10% since 2010. The number of children (about 47% of respondents) who say that the amount of reading they have to do in school discourages them from reading for pleasure is unfortunately high. Additionally, more than 60% of students report that they read less now than when younger because there are other things they enjoy doing. Given the large percentage of students that report spending significant time on electronic devices, this may indicate the distractification of our youth, which may influence later educational outcomes.

Another point of concern, which is admittedly more based on generalization and personal observations of the public library shelves, is that about 73% of children report that they would read more if they could find more books that they like. This is natural, but I think it is having a negative influence on the quality of children’s literature overall.

I’ve read plenty of fluff in my day. I still enjoy a good Louis L’Amour book, or a mystery by Ellis Peters or Alexander McCall Smith.

However, the shelves of the local library shelves are sagging under the weight of junk kiddie lit. I’m not basing that merely on grumpy observations of book covers, but on earlier study of children’s literature and attempting to read some of the stuff my kids bring home. The bulk of recently published stories seems more likely to smuggle attempts to justify restructuring traditional societal norms than to provide substantial benefits to the mind through reading. Sometimes good societal changes come through children’s lit, but surreptitiously sneaking various forms of social engineering into children’s fiction is a bit annoying. Even among the good clean fun kids’ books that I’ve read recently, there seemed to be an emotional and intellectual vacuousness; in many of the current offerings the story line is interesting, but the plot predictable and depth of character are flat.

Parents report that they think it is important for their kids to have strong reading skills and strong critical thinking skills in life. Reading is, arguably, supposed to support those things. Kids report being much more likely to prefer books they pick out themselves (90%) and to want more books that they like. But by providing quick, fun, easy to read stories, publishers and book buyers may be subverting benefits of reading.

This is not a dire warning against the library shelves or a call to ban fun books. There is likely some benefit in reading, even if the reading is light and fluffy. The caution should be in considering what we purchase (for home or the local library) and asking questions about the purpose of reading for children as we select the books to populate the common shelves. The best books both delight and instruct. We shouldn’t let the hope of making cotton candy literature becomes a gateway drug to better literature undermine a main purpose of forming readers, which is to help teach people to think better.

Part of Our Lives - A Review

What does your public library mean to you?

For many people, having a library card is an essential part of being a citizen. Being able to check out books independently as a child is a rite of passage that marks the coming of age.

Wayne Wiegand, sometimes referred to as the “Dean of library historians,” addresses both the political and social significance of public libraries in his recent book, Part of our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library.

While the subtitle indicates this is a people’s history, this is a volume more suitable for the scholar than the average reader. Wiegand’s prose is clear but dense. At times the pace bogs down in details and dates. This is a history of the people’s use of the public library rather than a history written primarily for the people that use it.

Summary

The book moves through the history of public libraries in the United States in ten chapters. Wiegand begins with the various forms of libraries, most of which were not free and available to citizens, during the colonial through early American era. He then transitions through consecutive periods in library history. In 1854 the first public library opened in Boston, then in 1876 the country celebrated its centennial. Wiegand marks the 1893 Chicago World Fair as a significant event, then he identifies the US entry into World War I. These divisions form reasonable points of demarcation for Wiegand’s history, though they are not necessarily intuitive.

Wiegand uses a mixed methods approach to present the history of public libraries. He combines an amazing depth of anecdotal research with seemingly comprehensive statistical data to put forward a detailed picture of who has used the library and for what reason. Wiegand’s purpose in writing the book was to show how the library and social change have been related. The book is thorough and informative; it paints a clear picture of how public libraries have changed with American society throughout history.

Analysis

Throughout the volume Wiegand is critical of historical librarians for their handling of socially radical issues. It seems that he thinks that public libraries should be leading cultural change instead of responding to it. (Something government entities rarely, if ever, do.) However, at the same time, he critiques librarians for attempting to be cultural leaders through selecting some literature over others. Attempts to encourage higher rates non-fiction reading are frowned on, though Wiegand approves of attempts to liberalize sexual mores. The reluctance to accept the role of a public institution as reactive instead of cutting edge institution is consistent throughout. Wiegand addresses it toward the end of the volume, but his analysis of the reality of a publicly funded institution as lagging culture comes too late and does not reflect a fully-considered analysis of the history he is recounting.

A major theme in this work is the balance between selection and censorship by librarians. Wiegand documents the tension between attempts to meet the demands for decency and the free exploration of ideas. While there were certainly abuses, Wiegand seems to come down to heavily on those that were responding to the (at the time) reasonable demands from library patrons for some items to be kept out of reach of children. Still, his point about the lengths some librarians went to keep the wrong books out of certain hands is well-taken. There is a difference between taking measures to ensure age appropriate materials are available and blocking access to challenging ideas. At the same time, Wiegand seems to accept the restriction of Little Sambo while criticizing the censoring of sexually explicit books; it seems like the definition of censoring depends on whether the content meets contemporary societal standards.

Wiegand’s ideological musings could have been better developed and his perspective reflects a progressive bias. His development, exploration, and explanation of the history itself, however, is phenomenal. This is an outstanding piece of historical writing. Wiegand demonstrates an understanding of the subject matter that is the result of a lifetime of study. From that perspective this is a masterpiece that deserves to be read and should be a landmark work on this subject for years to come. I certainly have a greater appreciation of the public library system as a result of reading the volume.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.