Reading Is Fundamental (And Not Reading Is A Recipe for Failure)
The burden of this message is the importance of reading for success in life. Some years ago there was a public service campaign with the slogan “R.I.F. (Reading Is Fundamental).” The goal of the campaign was to raise awareness of the importance of not only literacy but also love of reading for success in life. Studies were produced that demonstrated conclusively that reading expands consciousness and is essential to critical thinking. Young people who did not read but only watched television and played video games were compared with young people who spent hours every week reading. The results were conclusive: reading increased intelligence and especially critical thinking ability. For whatever biological reasons, reading wires the brain differently. The upshot of the many studies and reports was that reading is fundamental to success in life. People who read books as children and in young adulthood almost invariably succeeded in life better than those who avoided reading. It was discovered that playing video games habitually and watching many hours of television weekly were predictors for failure.
Now we are seeing the results of the video game craze and habitual television watching over reading especially in young men. Many young men drift from part-time job to part-time job and spend months and years unemployed or under-employed. Many struggle with basic literacy skills. Many drop out of school early. At the same time young women are rushing ahead of young men in college and university careers and in finding meaningful, fulfilling employment.
I have been teaching eighteen to twenty-five year olds (and some older students) for thirty-three years now. I can tell which students grew up reading books and which did not. Many of the male students (and some of the female students) have rarely read a whole book cover-to-cover. How can I tell without asking them? They struggle with reading comprehension and writing. Of course, some readers struggle, too, but overall and in general reading sets a person up for success in studying and succeeding in school and lifelong employment.
During that thirty-three year career teaching in three universities I have noticed many changes in my students. One is the rise of women and the decline of men—in terms of non-native intelligence and success in basic learning skills and achievement. A significant percentage of male students come to my classes having read very little compared with their female colleagues. They struggle with basic reading retention and comprehension and with writing. I am convinced it is because they have spent much more of their time playing video games, watching television and engaging in sports (either participation or as spectators) activities.
Not long ago I was browsing in a major bookstore and happened to see a large floor-to-ceiling section labeled “Youth.” It was the sole section dedicated solely to books for children and young people. I perused it and noticed that every book in it was aimed at female readers. Not one of the hundred or so books would be of any interest to the average boy. I decided to ask the clerk about it and she admitted that the owner of the bookstore was not interested in carrying books for boys as so few boys read.
Lately I’ve also noticed how few novels in the “New Books” sections of major bookstores are by men and the majority have a “feminine flavor.”
Occasionally someone asks me what set me up for a life of scholarship and academic endeavor. The answer is simple. First, it wasn’t having a particularly high IQ; I don’t have one. My IQ is average. Instead, what set me up for a life of scholarship and academic achievement (including being a very fast reader and writer) was growing up in a home filled with books and in which the television, when present at all, was rarely turned on.
The only “comic books” I was allowed to own were “Classics Illustrated.” As a child I owned dozens of them and read them all several times—which launched me into reading the classics themselves in adolescence. My parents read to me when I was too young to read and encouraged me to read “chapter books” as soon as I was able to (which was younger than most of my peers). My father was an avid reader and always had two or three books on his nightstand next to his bed. He owned a large library in his church office (he was a pastor) and read voraciously. He spent many hours in libraries and often took my brother and me with him. My parents often dropped us off at the library on Saturdays where we would spend two or three hours reading books and then bring home the limit allowed. Our television watching was severely limited.
Yes, at school some of my male friends teased me for being a “bookworm.” It didn’t bother me. I loved reading. By eighth grade I was reading large novels including (one of my favorites) The Count of Monte Cristo which led me to read other sweeping epic novels. By tenth grade I was deep into Leon Uris and James Michener books. I fell in love with historical fiction.
However, I have noticed a trend in American culture since I was a teenager. Then I was gently teased, but not ostracized or tormented for being a “bookworm.” Since then, gradually but definitely, “boy culture” has militated against readers. Boys are expected, even by parents, to play video games, watch television (especially sports programs and events), and participate in extracurricular activities of a physical nature. Boys who prefer to read are considered “nerds” and called “bookish” which is a put-down.
I believe this is one major reason for the decline of men—especially young men—in our society. They did not grow up reading. Many of them have never read a whole book cover-to-cover. It’s not encouraged, expected or required. Boys and young men who love to read are wrongly suspected of being effeminate if not gay.
I believe it’s also a reason many men in our society depend solely on “talk radio” for their opinions about social and political issues. They often only listen to the loudest, most obnoxious, extreme voices that affirm their native prejudices and subtly (sometimes not so subtly) ridicule people who read to form their opinions.
Ours has gradually become a culture openly hostile to intellectually inclined males. They are ignored or openly ridiculed in popular culture. The “nerds” who populate The Bang Theory may be funny but they are treated as lovable fools whose pursuits are largely a waste of time and get in the way of important things like sex and sports.
Churches need to step up and emphasize the importance of reading and the life of the mind especially for boys and young men. Pastors and youth pastors should talk about the books they are reading and find ways to encourage and support boys and girls, young men and young women, who read. (When was the last time you heard of a men’s book discussion group in a church?)
Human flourishing is not just a secular issue; Christians ought to be involved in any cause that promotes it. Reading is fundamental to human flourishing. Readers are more likely to be successful in life. More attention needs to be given by schools, non-profit organizations, government and churches to encouraging especially boys to read. I see very little of that and that’s a shame. We are letting half of our young population down.