Good points, but hold the elitism please.

June 9th, 2014  |  Published in commentary

The other day I ran across an article in Forbes, “Kids Don’t Read Books Because Parents Don’t Read Books,” by Jordan Shapiro. The central point was that the print vs. digital debate is much less important than it is made out to be, and that the real story is how parents’ reading behavior affects that of their children. On board so far. Then I came to this paragraph:

I’ve met highly educated elite individuals who have told me they just don’t have time to read books. They skim the NY Times book review so they can participate in cocktail party conversations. They buy executive summaries from the back of in-flight magazines. I’m shocked by the number of people who ask me if there are audio versions of my books available.

That last sentence bothered me. Although he isn’t explicit about it, it looks a lot like Mr. Shapiro is equating audio books with executive summaries and book review articles. Huh. Even if I’m misinterpreting that, it is pretty clear that he is disappointed by these people who want to listen to his books rather than read them. Now, I won’t argue with the fact that listening to an audio production of a book is a different experience than reading the text of it, but it seems that I missed the part where he provided justification for implying that it is an inferior method.

The written word is a way of transcribing the spoken word, not the other way around, and though some books do not make the transition to audio very well, suggesting that text is the superior way of experiencing prose sounds to me like saying that we shouldn’t watch productions of Shakespeare as reading the plays is clearly far superior. Given his words in “Phaedrus”, I suspect that Socrates would side with me on this point. Or perhaps Shapiro’s derision is because listening to books can be less work than reading them on a page or a screen. Fair enough, but I would argue that the work of reading a book isn’t in how the text makes it from the author’s brain to your own, but rather with what you do with it once it gets there. Let’s not mistake audiobooks for television here.

Finally, it seems he has a bit of a double standard. He writes: “My kids read on the iPad, the e-reader, and paper. I make sure of it. I read to my kids every night.” I’m not exactly sure why a parent reading a story to their kid is worthy of praise and an adult having a story read to them is worthy of scorn. Perhaps it is because this inferior form of prose is okay for children, who cannot read on their own, except that he points out that his kids can and do. If, as parents, we need to model good reading behavior for our kids, it seems somewhat arbitrary that we should avoid modeling the enjoyment of listening to a book ourselves while encouraging our children to enjoy books that we read to them.

On another topic, at the end of the essay, he talks about some interesting findings from a recent study about what kids are reading. The one which caught my eye was the third:

3. Books like Twilight and Hunger Games are more popular than literary classics. These days, teachers assign these more often than Shakespeare or Don Quixote. Most of them will tell you that it is because they figure any reading is good reading and books like these increase student engagement. On the one hand, this makes sense. On the other hand, we should remember that popular fiction prioritizes sales over content. They are revenue generators first and literary explorations of the human condition only afterward. This doesn’t necessarily mean popular fiction is bad, but there’s also a reason that certain books have transcended the economic, political, and epistemological trends of particular centuries.

I’m not sure that most teachers would say that the reason they might assign a popular book is that “they figure any reading is good reading and books like these increase student engagement.” I missed the supporting evidence for that bit. Perhaps the teachers are just trying to assign books that their students will find entertaining and relevant. Perhaps these teachers are trying to show their students that reading is fun and rewarding. Perhaps the historical importance of the first contemporary novel is not the thing to create lifelong reading habits.

Frankly, if I have to choose between a teen reading “Don Quixote” in high school and coming to the conclusion that reading is tedious or that same student reading “Hunger Games” and coming to the conclusion that reading is fun, perhaps even later in life listening to an audio production of “Don Quixote”, I’ll pick the latter any day of the week. As important as the classics may be, and as much as we should encourage people of all ages to read them (in whatever format works for them), how about we give them the tools and opportunity to decide to do it on their own first.

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