Readers Wanted

hulk thinkWhile I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, video games were in their infancy, and most television shows were pretty bad.

It could be argued that most television shows are pretty bad today, as well, and while that would be true, there are so MANY more to choose from that it’s much easier to find some that are entertaining. I’ve honestly lost count of how many channels we have, not to mention the number of online venues, and when you contrast that to the 3 and occasionally 4 channels I had while growing up, the difference is obvious.

melancholyVideo games, while entertaining and engrossing when I was a kid, just couldn’t pull most people into weeks and months of continued gaming like they do today.

My kids have never been big video gamers, but they’ve certainly enjoyed more electronic media than was available when I was their age. And they read less. I blame part of that on the availability of some quality video entertainment, but I have to lay a lot of blame at the feet of the school system. When my son was in high school the program was so rigorous he had no time left for free reading. When he was reading it was always for class — some shattering autobiography of traumatized modern people, or some other “classic” that will be forgotten in a generation.

My daughter has it a little better, but to maintain her high GPA she, too, spends a lot of time studying. And in the last two years her reading for fun quotient has dropped significantly.

lolani kirkMy wife and I were big readers growing up; we’ve instilled in them a love of story, and all four of us analyze story and plot structure and character development. I’ve certainly encouraged them to continue reading. Yet it just doesn’t seem to be happening very often. They always find other things to do with their spare time. Both of them play instruments, and my son is usually involved on some art project (he’s an art major, after all) either for class or for his own amusement. My daughter is super busy with sports activities after school in addition to the school work.

I’ve sort of resigned myself, at this point, to the fact neither of them are ever going to read as much as I have, and it saddens me. I’ve thought about applying some rationing to the situation (you can only do THAT if you read this much), but both of them are actually quite balanced with their consumption of alternate entertainment sources. It would be different if they were binge watching movies or shows or constantly playing video games.

one more thingPart of the change in the amount they read has to be due to the increase in decent media entertainment. But I am absolutely convinced that the state school system has its head up some place unmentionable in regards to turning kids into readers. I probably would have ended up loving reading anyway, but that natural inclination was definitely fostered by the long lost tradition of English teachers providing long lists of books to choose from to read for class credit, some of which were full of adventure rather than angst and important lessons about togetherness. I discovered that good adventure stories had that stuff in them anyway.

If my kids, coming from a family that loves storytelling and reading, aren’t reading that much, what’s happening in other families? Are we going to see fewer and fewer readers in years to come? I worry. And I worry that I’m trying to master a dying art form.

11 Comments on “Readers Wanted

  1. My son loved to read until he was in second grade. That was the year the school had a curriculum (I forget what it was called) where he got so many points for reading a book and taking a test on it. He was required to have so many points for a passing grade. The result was he had to read a book a day and test on it the next day. Of course he hated it.

    I was working in a different part of the state (while trying to get the ducks in a row so my family could join me) and wasn’t home during much of this. I told my wife I didn’t care about the grades. I didn’t want him to lose his love of reading. Unfortunately by the time my wife and son moved to where I was, the damage had been done. He’s not been a fan of reading since then, and he’s in eighth grade now.

    • I’m sorry to hear that, Keith. I wish I knew a way to turn it around. When my son headed off for the semester he showed great interest in some books I told him someone interested in good storytelling really ought to read, but it’s been two months and he hasn’t cracked any of them open yet. I know he’s busy with school, but I’m still a little surprised. There is SOME spare time, unless college has changed drastically. I don’t think he reads as fast as I do.

      My high school aged daughter really is very, very busy, and since she’s not absolutely in love with reading she’s not squeezing it in.

  2. I think it’s unavoidable to a great extent if only because, as you point out, there are so many other forms of narrative calling out to children: video games, high quality TV, films, comics, etc. Whereas I had mostly crappy TV in the 70s and early 80s and certainly nothing of note in my preferred genre of fantasy. My kids are 10 and 5, and they’re both very good readers in terms of their skills. My daughter does read for pleasure, but she tends to reread (like her mother), making it difficult to get her into new genres and authors. My son (the 5 year old) still wants to be read to, so it’s hard to say where he’ll end up. In the end, I think the most one can do is model reading behavior for them.

    • Yeah, the TV in those days was pretty bad. There is just so much good stuff to choose from now, even amongst all the mediocrity.

      I’m glad to hear that they’re enjoying reading. I hope they continue to do so.

  3. I know nothing can ruin a book than having it be taught in schools. Also academics are terrible at realizing which books will have lasting significance.

    I personally believe that for the most part give to much home work. Kids should have actual free time. To read, or spend time with their friends, or even to play video games. For most part, I don’t think homework really helps people learn anything.

    • Your preaching to the choir. My kids had and have far more homework than I ever had, and I don’t know that it’s doing them much good. They’re making sure everyone has multiple levels of math that they’ll never use, but they only get one year of history that’s not state history, and then they’re done. I don’t understand that anymore than I understand the wisdom of forcing them to read these downbeat books in modern settings where nearly everyone is wretched.

  4. Heh. English professor here–I think we do a pretty good job of recognizing talent overall, and I know from experience that I’ve been successful in getting students to like medieval (aka boring) literature. But I also recognize that secondary school is a different kettle of fish …

    • I think it’s very different, Rob. In college, my eyes were opened to all sorts of work I would never have tried. A good prof can get you to appreciate challenging work. In high school it seems like the agenda is to force “problem” books to make children relate to people who aren’t like them. It’s good in theory, but across the board the sorts of books chosen seem to turn children off to reading. It’s just not fun. And fun stories are only a click away.

      • I lucked out in high school in the mid 1980s. Most of my English teachers were ABDs who really knew their fields, giving the curriculum a more or less historical structure. My favorite was a medievalist who made sure we all read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. There was no AP at my school, but it turned out that we had all effectively had an AP course of study in the end.

  5. In the 7th grade our teacher would have the class read an Edgar Allan Poe story a week, then we would watch this animated version of the story, and for homework we were tasked with writing a new ending to that story. This led to great tales of pitched flintlock battles deep in gloom filled catacombs, monolithic structures slumbering at the bottom of maelstroms, and the living dead lurking beneath bedroom floorboards. Now I don’t know if it is common practice to teach 7th graders Poe, but it certainly spawned my love for reading and writing going forward (and many of my friends in that class as well).

    Cool thing, 27 years later that school closed for good, and in doing so had a big reunion party. I got the chance to personally thank that teacher for starting what would be a lifelong passion for books and great stories.

    Sure hope other kids today can experience something like that. School doesn’t only have to be about solving for x.

    • That was a great story. You have won the internet for the day.

      I’ve often wished I could thank the two history teachers who so furthered my love of history, one in 7th and 8th grade, and one in high school. I’m envious that you got to tell your teacher what a great impact her teaching had upon you.

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