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Young People Aren’t Reading Classic Books. 3 Reasons Why That’s a Problem.

Young People Aren’t Reading Classic Books. 3 Reasons Why That’s a Problem.

One thing I wish I would have done more when I was in grade school was read. Granted, I do not recall anyone around me with their nose in a book or suggesting the activity might be enjoyable. The simple fact was that I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Even now, some twenty years later, it doesn’t appear that there has been a very big emphasis put on reading for young people. When I taught composition to first-year college students during the COVID-19 pandemic, there wasn’t a single literary example I provided that was familiar to my students. Not a single one.

Instead, I had to search for popular commercials and viral social media clips in order to relate to the next generation. It became apparent to me that the incoming class was not reading very much in high school, and the little bit they did read had fallen out of their memory.

Unfortunately, this type of scenario isn’t surprising: A 2015 study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that only 43 percent of adults report having read one unassigned piece of literature in the past year. Plus, a Test Prep Insight poll found that over 40 percent of young people aged 18 to 24 have not read any books in the previous year.

Thus, it’s no wonder that these students were unfamiliar with many of the examples I tried to cite in freshman composition. The deficiencies of K-12 language arts are finding a parallel in higher education.

And yet, there’s compelling evidence that reading makes us better communicators, trains us as serious thinkers, and improves our people skills.

1. Reading Fosters Discernment.

According to research carried out by Anne E. Cunningham, there’s a marked difference between those who read and those who watch television. Cunningham’s findings revealed that those who read demonstrated a more sophisticated ability to snuff out misinformation, thus improving their discernment skills.

Cunningham’s study could very well have compared readers to those who are addicted to social media. I have no doubts that the findings would have been similar. With the massive onslaught of information available to us at the press of a button, it can be very challenging to weed out bad information from the good. However, the ability to read—and to read at a high level—can help us zone in on important information when it’s presented to us.

2. Reading Teaches Communication Skills.

It’s often the case that the difference between good and bad information is in the way that it’s communicated to us. My fiancée’s grandfather has a special affinity for a quote by William Howard Taft, the 27th president of the United States: “Don’t write so that you can be understood, write so that you can’t be misunderstood.” Although Taft was referring specifically to the act of writing, his little gem of advice could be used for the way we speak to one another.

Of course, we don’t inexplicably become better communicators merely because we flipped through a book. If reading is going to be a tool we leverage to improve our communication skills, we need to take the act of reading seriously. This means sitting with a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, for a substantial amount of time. If we want to be good communicators, we must learn from the very best communicators.

3. Reading Cultivates Interpersonal Connection.

Reading can also improve our communication skills by sharpening our emotional awareness, which plays a large part in engaging with another human being. One study even suggests that almost one-third of all marriages throughout the United States end in divorce because of (at least in part) a breakdown of communication between the two parties.

In this way, reading a novel by Charles Dickens or Fyodor Dostoevsky has the power to greatly improve our communication skills. Not only are these two novelists among the very best wordsmiths, but they possess a special ability to develop realistic characters. If we can sit with a book that has compelling characters, it allows us to watch how the characters engage with one another in the fictional world, which can prepare us for communicating with others in the real world.

To read the very best that fiction has to offer is a sort of training ground for our real lives. There’s no question that the habit of reading these books has experienced a dramatic downswing over the recent decades, but it doesn’t have to be this way. One way we can begin to change this trend is by reading and seriously reflecting on the ideas being expressed. By reflecting on the ideas someone else has written, we can gain the tools we need to effectively communicate in our own lives.

Image credit: Pexels

C.G. Jones
C.G. Jones

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  • Avatar
    Jon R. Parsons
    December 11, 2023, 4:40 pm

    I agree viscerally, but don't know what the younger crowd will need to weather the coming storms. I regret not having to learn Latin and Greek and the complete lack of armchair musicians capable of playing a piano trio at someone's home on a lark. "I have come too late into a world too old." But hey, life is good with the eyes to see it in a certain light.

  • Avatar
    December 11, 2023, 8:30 pm

    had to search for popular commercials and viral social media clips in order to relate to the next generation.

    You allowed your class to shape and instruct YOU, not the other way round. Had I been in such a situation I'd have assigned a decent novel with good character development and iteration, given them a week to digest it, then take that work as a class adventure together. Perhaps begin the adventure by having them write a one page piece on the selected work. Then after digesting it together for some time, have them write on it again. The YOU would be shaping THEM, not the other way round as happened. Help them see the personal interaction, dynamics, character development, and such. I'd lay high stakes at long odds at least 7 to 10 percent of the class would thus be self-prompted to read more, and they would enjoy it. Which event would be in major part your falut….. a "fault" over which you could derive grea satisfaction.

    Some decades back a relative of mine was employed as an high school teacher in English literature at a major high school in a large city. Probably 80% of his students were first generation here, of chinese heritage. He held high expectations and high standards for them, and over the two years he had each student he delighted to watch them grow and mature in understanding western culture. Many of his students began personal correspondence with him after graduation and continued, some for decades, and expressed strong thankfulness for the way he had exposed them to western literature and culture.

  • Avatar
    Liam Ronan
    December 11, 2023, 8:50 pm

    When I was just beginning high school in the earl 1960s we were given a list of required reading material; material that was to have been read during the summer before each year commenced so we could hit the ground running for our various literary/English courses. It was during my freshman year of high school that we focused on the short story and those stories representative of various national authors. This course had required reading of the Russian short story authors and, having been exposed to Pushkin (initially) I was hooked.


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