Thursday, October 02, 2008

Eggers on Reading

For Esquire, Dave Eggers comments on the future of reading, especially reading by young people. He writes "When we assume, as most adults do, that kids are less literate, less interested in books, than ever before, it involves a willful kind of ignorance, and it imperils how we educate young people."

He adds: "The primary problem is that we look for gloomy statistics. Last year the National Endowment for the Arts issued a study that proclaimed that leisure reading was down overall, especially among the young. The study was much talked about, and again, much accepted. But soon a group of educators began to question the methods of the study, and the parsing of the results. Now, thankfully, the study is taken with a grain of salt.

I'll always oppose any statistical extrapolations that summarize the intellectual disposition of an entire generation. These 'it's worse now than before' studies are always framed to imply that the teens' parents, at the same age, read more. And that their grandparents, well, they read their asses off. But this is simply not true. Far more Americans are educated now than they were 100 years ago, and infinitely more go to college. As a result, there is now a pool of potential readers that is far larger than it was a century ago."

Eggers is right, of course, and his conclusion is spot on: "Books, inherently, require faith. Faith in an author that he or she will reward the many hours you'll spend in those pages, faith that a good story will be told, a lesson will be learned, a light will be shone upon a dim corner of the world. If you're reading this magazine, with its vast and rich history of literary achievement, you're alive to the pleasures of reading--for school or for no good reason at all. Now you have to give teenagers the benefit of the doubt, that they know what you know, that they do read and will read, that they will keep books alive, as alive as ever--that they will continue to pull the books from the shelves and add to those shelves books of their own."

I've said it here before, and I'll probably say it again: awaken people to reading, and they will read. Don't shove it down their throats, just make it available. Don't discourage anyone from reading anything they choose. Hand-wringing and lamentation rarely helps anything, but gentle encouragement and hard work usually work pretty well.

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