Don't just read for fun

We've taught kids to think reading is entertainment. But it's also a source of renewal.

Laments about the decline of interest in reading have become a national tradition, as evidenced by the recent release of yet another federal report noting further erosion in the number of Americans who read for pleasure.

In its latest findings, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) mentioned that the percentage of 13-year-old students who read almost every day for fun dropped from 35 percent in 1984 to 30 percent in 2004. During the same period, the figure for 17-year-olds declined from 31 percent to 22 percent.

Alarm bells about America's reading habits date back to at least 1951, when about 100 writers, publishers, academics, and government officials convened in Washington to discuss how they might encourage more Americans to read. Then, as now, they were concerned that television, radio, and the speed of modern life distracted Americans from reading.

Among the results of that conference was "The Wonderful World of Books," a slender 1953 paperback in which commentators embrace the joys of reading and exhort their fellow citizens to do the same.

When I came across a yellowed copy of the anthology in a Boston bookstore three years ago, I felt as though I'd discovered the seminal gospel of what might be called the American "Reading is Fun" movement.

Illustrated with cheerful cartoons of characters who smile rhapsodically as they comb cherished volumes, the book stresses reading as an unalloyed delight. Fairly representative of the contributors is legendary publisher Bennett Cerf, who extols the ecstasy of the printed word in an essay titled, "It's Fun to Read."

"Reading is like eating peanuts: once you begin, you tend to go on and on," Cerf observes in what sounds like a testimonial from Madison Avenue.

Since Cerf's declaration that it's fun to read, we've hung "Reading is Fun" banners in libraries and classrooms and promoted reading fun on educational television. The idea, perfectly well meaning, is to hook children on a lifelong skill without letting them know they're being taught.

But in making this bargain, perhaps we've inadvertently conditioned new generations of Americans to think of reading as a literary amusement park, full of thrills, chills, and a few pleasant gags that indulge us without asking anything in return.

It may be that fewer young Americans today read in their spare time because the reading-is-fun philosophy has taught them to regard books as just another species of popular entertainment, blithely interchangeable with the latest sitcom or movie blockbuster. It's a comparison in which the quieter medium of literature seems ill suited to compete.

Of course, reading can be great fun, as I was recently reminded in the pages of "Way Off the Road," a wacky new book from humorist Bill Geist that nearly knocked me out of bed with spasms of laughter.

But reading can also be something more, as I rediscovered in the pages of "To Kill a Mockingbird," another title on my nightstand lately.

In Harper Lee's famous novel, small-town lawyer Atticus Finch defends a black man wrongly accused of rape in Depression-era Alabama. In a sentence meant to deride her father's wallflower personality, Finch's daughter flatly observes: "He sat in his livingroom and read."

But what we slowly discover is that Finch's reading isn't just passive play, but a vital wellspring.

As he waits for an inevitable confrontation with a gang of vigilantes, Finch reads in the dark, lonely night by the light of a single bulb.

Struggling against a town that despises his principles, Finch routinely reads to widen his worldview and deepen his soul. He is reading, in a very real way, as if his life depends on it.

That sense of daring and risk, of deep emotional and spiritual discovery, is what gets lost when we think of books only as avenues to pleasure. As the NEA report makes clear, reading can also be a source of civic and social renewal.

A generation ago, scholar Robert B. Heilman acknowledged that reading can be a pleasure, but of a special kind that helps humanize the person who experiences it.

"I believe that the pleasures of imaginative reading ... lead the individual toward his full status as a human being – in a word, help him to grow up," Mr. Heilman wrote.

If we want the next generation to read at least as much as the generation before it, we must promote reading not just for fun, but for what Atticus Finch found in books: the source of his very salvation.

Danny Heitman is a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate.

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