The Slow Death of Reading

When our daughters were very small, we sat them in our laps and started reading.  A captive audience, to be sure, but we found before long that we were the captives in one of the most treasured times we had with them.

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Our favorite book in those early years was The Three Little Kittens.   You probably know the lilting rhyme by heart: “The Three Little Kittens, they Lost Their Mittens…”  We read that one book over and over and over.  The girls loved to hear it read and would often bring it to us, ready to settle in.  They soon learned the text by heart.  Paulette and I would occasionally change a word, just for fun.  “The Three Little Kittens, they Lost Their Asparagus…”  “No, no!” the girls would cry, “it’s MITTENS!  Silly Daddy.”

Of course, we soon graduated to a much broader variety of books, but we kept coming back to Kitten Trio until the book literally fell apart.  It was not until years later that we saw the famous quote from award-winning children’s author Emilie Buchwald:

I’ve been thinking about all that as I hear more and more alarming news about reading (or rather, lack of it) in our modern world. 

The Washington Post reports on new studies by neuroscientists about how our brains process information.  Researchers are finding that we spend an increasing amount of time (five hours a day and climbing) on electronic devices – smart phones, laptops, I-pads, etc. – and that we are mostly skimming and scanning, rushing through text to find something that catches our interest.  Conversely, we are spending less and less time with more in-depth reading:  books, and the sort.  We are re-wiring our brains to dash pell-mell through the torrent of online information.  We cover more ground, but we absorb less.  We see it, but we don’t really get it.  Comprehension, it turns out, seems better when we read from paper. 

This is especially true for children, whose brains are developing patterns that will last a lifetime.  They are drawn to adults’ electronic devices and they learn to skim and scan.  Deep reading skills don’t get the nurturing they need.  From books.

There’s more bad news from a couple of other recent surveys:

33% of high school graduates never read another book the rest of their lives.

42% of college graduates never read another book after college.

80% of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.

In 1984, only 8% of 13-year-olds said they hardly ever or never read for pleasure; today, 22% of 13-year-olds say that.

That’s all depressing news.  We live in a complex, fast-moving world and the problems we have to tackle, and hopefully solve, require deep, creative thought.  We adults are passing those problems on to new generations, but we’re not giving them the tools they need – comprehension, reason, the ability to make sense of complicated ideas.  They won’t find the answers flipping madly through e-mails and social media.  Those may be good tools, but they aren’t the essential ones.

If I had one wish for parents, it would be that we would read – a lot – to our children, and start as soon as they’re able to hold their heads up.  My mother did that for me, and gave me the gift of a fertile imagination, which has served me richly in a long love affair with words.

If there’s a kid near you – your own or someone else’s – grab the kid and a book, snuggle up, and start reading.  That’s true for parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors, even older siblings.  Kids are mimics, and when we read to them, we let them know that reading is important and rewarding.  Once that sinks in, they’re hooked, and they can’t wait to learn to read themselves.  If you can find one, I suggest a copy of The Three Little Kittens to start with.  The asparagus thing, that’s optional.