Are readers born or made?

Can you teach someone to love reading?  According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the answer is no.  In “We Can’t Teach Students To Love Reading,” Professor Alan Jacobs hypothesizes that the group of people who truly enjoy “deep attention” reading – that is, getting lost in a book for hours on end – are and will forever remain a small fringe of the population.

 Professor Jacobs’ article is fascinating, even if I don’t completely agree with it.  He traces the history of deep attention reading, from St. Augustine to the present day.  It probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the teaching of literature in schools and universities is a modern phenomenon.  Until just a few hundred years ago, very few people could read at all, and books were prohibitively expensive until the printing press changed history.  In fact, education itself was a luxury.  When the printing press made books far more available and inexpensive in the 1600s, many scholars worried about information overload – that people had so many sources of information now available to them that they were simply overwhelmed and could not choose between sources.  Sound familiar?  (Asks the blogger…) 

 Still, the numbers of people pursuing higher education, where they were expected to not only practice deep attention reading, but enjoy it, are a phenomenon of the latter half of the 20th century.  In 2005, sociologists theorized that “while there was a period in which extraordinarily many Americans practiced long-form reading, whether they liked it or not, that period was indeed extraordinary and not sustainable in the long run.”  So basically, what that means is that we should be seeing, or should expect to see soon, a normalization of reading, where fewer and fewer people practice deep attention reading for pleasure.  And ultimately, “extreme readers” (Jacobs’ words, not mine) will return to the fringe of society, only coming out of the woodwork to insist that War and Peace is NOT boring.  (Again, Jacobs’ words, not mine, but I assure you that War and Peace is most certainly not boring.  I guess you can pinpoint the fringe group to which I belong, yes?)

 Since I first saw this article on Twitter, thanks to Rebecca Joines Schinsky of The Book Lady’s Blog, I’ve been ruminating on it.  Can readers be made?  Or do they have to be born?  Is there some sort of gene that predicts whether a particular individual will be a reader?  (By which I mean, will read for pleasure and enjoyment with the attention span to focus for extended periods of time… not someone who simply has the ability to read.)  I don’t have personal experience of being molded, myself, into a reader.  I belong to the “born reader” subset.  From a very young age, I have been one to read anything I could get my hands on.  If it has words, I will read it (although I have my preferences, like anyone).  But I’ve been known to read the back of cereal boxes… or even shampoo bottles… just to have something to read.  In middle school I read my entire 7th grade history textbook (including captions) in one sitting.  In high school, I frequently told my parents “I don’t have any homework tonight – just reading.”  Reading, even reading a science textbook, could not be considered homework.  Reading was not work.

 But I have seen a reader made – my brother.  My brother was a very smart kid, and is currently a very smart guy, but he didn’t love reading with the level of obsession I did.  This drove my mother crazy.  As a teacher, she wanted him to love to read.  And we had plenty of books lying around – both mine (and no, I didn’t read all girly books – Encyclopedia Brown, anyone?) and those she brought home from school.  But my brother was lukewarm at best.  He would flip through them, because he was easygoing.  But he wasn’t crazy for books the way I was… until my mother slipped a Star Wars book in front of him.  Not one of the originals, mind you, but one of the “young adult” chapter books about Han and Leia’s kids.  My brother devoured it and requested more.  Soon he had entire shelves dedicated to Star Wars spinoff fiction.  That turned to other kids’ adventure fiction… which led to Harry Potter and eventually J.R.R. Tolkien, and a reading monster was born.  These days, he is largely a non-fiction reader.  The little kid who read Star Wars spinoffs in one sitting now reads books like Freakanomics, biographies, and books about current events.  He asks for and receives just as many books as I do on Christmas morning.  (In fact, he will probably unwrap more paper books than I will on Christmas Day in 2011, now that I have a Nook.)  And he loves to give books as gifts.  My brother is a perfect example of a “made” reader – someone who just needed the right book to open up a whole world of words.

 But there’s one important detail that shouldn’t be overlooked.  My brother was “made” a reader at a very young age.  He was still in elementary school when my mother figured out how to unlock his love for reading.  What about people who grow up ambivalent toward books, reading only when forced to by a stern teacher?  Can they be lured into our cozy little fringe group of extreme readers as adults?  Does it just take the right book, or are they destined to be stuck in the non-reader camp?  I don’t know.

 I do think that the right book can awaken people to the joys of reading.  The multitudes of Potterheads and Twihards prove that.  There are just too many of them to all have come from the ranks of extreme readers.  (And yes, I am a proud Potterhead.  But not a Twihard.  Sparkly vampires just don’t do it for me.)  And I think that the right book will open the door to further reading… to a certain extent, at least.  So many grown-up Potter fans, bereft after the series ended, turned to Twilight or The Hunger Games to ease their pain.  But where from there?  Does anyone draw a line from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to Charles Dickens?  You could, but most people don’t.  In looking for a successor to a book they loved, people often look for more of the same, rather than allowing themselves to grow and expand.  Hey, I’m not arguing against searching out books with a similar feel or geared toward a similar audience as those you loved.  I read The Hunger Games.  (Team Peeta!)  But I do think it can be too easy to stagnate.

 So, to sum up this long-winded narrative, yes, I do think readers can be made as well as born.  Especially if you catch them young, when they are more likely to be open-minded about genre after finishing that perfect gateway book.  Adults are trickier.  There’s plenty of people out there who have the capacity to practice and enjoy deep attention reading when there’s a dragon tattoo involved, or who would gleefully tape up their glasses and draw a lightening bolt on their foreheads to attend a Harry Potter midnight release party.  (Again, not proud of this, but I once dressed up as a member of the Gryffindor quidditch team to attend a release party.)  But when the book is done, they melt back into their busy lives, rushing from work to errands to the gym to home and collapsing in front of a screen – television or computer, it doesn’t really matter – when it’s all done.  Those people could be “extreme readers.”  They have the ability to love reading, if the right book comes along.  But they need to be won over again and again.  They might not step out of the genre that first attracted them to read other types of writing, but they will be ready to snap up the next sensation.  Every so often, one of them might branch out and discover that there is so much out there to read.  An adult who has not looked beyond the bestseller list since graduating from college might find that gateway book that leads to the Brontes, or Tolstoy, or Jane Austen, or Salman Rushdie, or David McCullough, or any author.  They might start developing preferences beyond dragon tattoos.  They might become an extreme reader.  And then there will be more of us, and eventually we will take over the world.

5 thoughts on “Are readers born or made?

  1. Great post! I agree with you, I think the answer is both yes and no. I always want to think that if kids are read to then they will become readers but I grew up without much influence to read but have become a hardcore reader and, like you, would read cereal boxes just to read. But my husband’s mom would read him books to sleep every night and it’s like pulling teeth to get him to read. I just wonder if someone would have encouraged him with a book like “Star Wars” at the right age if he would’ve become a reader.
    Great thing to ponder this weekend! 🙂

    • It’s interesting you mention being read to. My brother looooooooved to be read to as a kid – that was how I got him to read Harry Potter, by promising to read it to him. I got halfway through and got a sore throat and then he took the book and finished it. Once he even told my mom he didn’t want to stay home from school when he was sick because he missed too much since he learns by listening – very astute for a little kid! But I don’t think it was being read to that got him reading himself; he just needed the right book. For some kids, though, reading to them would probably get them into books more than others. I think all kids are different and you have to approach each one differently to get them to learn. (Lesson from my very brief stint as a piano teacher!) Your husband is completely normal though if he’s not a big reader. According to this article, bookworms are the weirdos! I’m cool with that though. I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drummer anyway. 🙂

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