I am presently reading Leah Price’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading. I will review this book once I have finished reading it however, I keep getting waylaid in reading Price’s book by other material she recommends.
Of the various articles and books recommended, I want to mention Reading At Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America. This is a report commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States. The report summarizes data collected over a twenty year period from 1982 to 2002. More than 17,000 Americans participated in the survey. The report shows that literary reading in America is declining, especially among young people.
Since the 19th century, as more and more people became readers, written literature has been the medium that carried our stories. Through books and reading books, everyone who could read had access to the stories of our culture. It is our stories that help to make us resilient and, with the loss of our stories, we will lose this advantage.
I am not going to focus on the content of the article. You can read the Executive Summary of the report here or the full report here. I want to ask you to think about what your favourite stories have meant to you personally. When you do this, you will realize the strength you have gotten from this personal reading.
Think about being a six year old, reading your first book all on your own. Remember how powerful that made you feel. Even as you grew older, the power of reading a story yourself allowed you to live in the story. It allowed you to learn what the hero learned, without nearly the pain that they had to experience. Reading about the hero’s trials and successes might even have given you the tools to face the same challenges.
Now think about being fourteen and reading a book like The Lord of the Rings – imagine reading it as I did, long before the movie came out, possibly before it was even considered. Such a story makes an impression and reading a story like this, imagining the action, allowed me to see that anyone could be a hero. It also helped me to see how difficult it would be to be a hero.
As an adult, when I read a book such as Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, I learn about the experiences and hardships of migrants. I could read a report about the experience, with data about the hardships, but research tells us that a report doesn’t foster our understanding the way a story does.
The truth of the report Reading At Risk is evident to me because I read. After reading Reading at Risk, I am compelled to tell you: read this report, or at least the Executive Summary, and then read and read and read as many stories as you can.