Sunday, January 1, 2012

Here’s To a Year of Reading

If Americans read more, I contend, it would help us solve nearly every problem. I’ve been thinking a lot about education, but there’s so much more.

When we encounter a new piece of information, we store it in short-term memory. If I learn something in 7th grade, but don’t bump into it again until 11th grade, I won’t remember it. But let’s say I learn about the Revolutionary War in 7th grade. My teacher explains the political players, the economic forces, some of the major events, and the results. If I read Johnny Tremain, I imagine life in the colonies through the eyes of a boy. Later I might read a book or article, fiction or non-fiction, that sheds light on slavery, England, the founding fathers, Westward expansion, Native Americans, health and medicine… I come at that same topic from many points of view. Then when I hear about it in 11th grade, I have not only a long-term memory but a richer understanding and maybe even some opinions, and my 11th grade class will feel more relevant and stimulating.

If I don’t read at home, I won’t remember much of what I learned in school, and it won’t become usable information. It will feel like a big waste of time. And I will not be good at reading. It’s a skill, and it will stay hard, making me more likely to be a lifelong non-reader. If I go to college, it will be more challenging than it needs to be.

I know some people don’t have time to read, but I would say if someone watches t.v., that’s reading time. Here’s my argument for why it’s worth it. Becoming enlightened enough to put our present in perspective with our past and future is only one thing. We make huge decisions in our lives, and reading could make all the difference.

What if every young person considering the military read about our current and recent wars, the lives of veterans, how the military works, and what other civilian options might offer similar opportunities? Those who went on to enlist would be much better for it. And because their parents read along (I wouldn’t want my son or daughter to join a military I knew little about), our national conversation would be enriched. We spend a lot of money on our military, at the expense of much else, and it is worth our time to understand. And if we’re using slogans like “Freedom isn’t free,” we should have the concrete information to back that up.

Hell, we don’t even have the information we need to keep ourselves healthy. We know everything there is to know about McDonald’s products from watching thousands of ads. Time well spent? But we don’t know where our food comes from, how it’s produced or subsidized, or what would prevent a third of our children born after 2000 from becoming diabetic. Kids should be reading about that too. Television stations that rely on McDonald’s advertising should not be trusted as a source for factual information on food.

We don’t read about political issues, so we end up voting for people by feeling. That leaves us wide open to manipulation. Advertisers are paid to study us to find out how to influence us. We should all know enough about economics to engage in discussions with those who don’t agree with us, so our national conversation is a robust political debate, leading to more informed voting. After all, most of politics is the allocation of resources. (And if we expect our legislators to compromise, we should be able to talk to each other without any strangling with the bare hands. Even if, ahem, there is occasional strong language.)

I think Americans don’t read enough about energy, water, mineral resources, air, land use, wealth distribution, financial planning, taxes, innovation, geopolitics, religion, psychology, even dogs – but we do read about crazy people (“Man sets his own hair on fire”) and celebrities. Why do we know more about the Kardashians than the Supreme Court?

Because we don’t read. A person who hasn’t been a lifelong reader likely won’t pick up a magazine full of articles on climate change. By staying on the candy level of reading, we give up our ability to shape our national conversation, and to take the best care of ourselves and each other.

Our literacy rates are plummeting. Many times I’ve come across the chilling statistic that 80% of American families don’t buy or read a book in any given year. Yet families spend up to $100 each month on cable channels. I’m not sure if there ever was a golden age of reading, but I think not giving the next generation the tools to understand the complex problems of our age means they will be less able to solve them. We are handing off a mess.

It wouldn’t be hard to start an upward climb in reading. When it comes to gifts, I love giving books and magazines. For the baby shower, I like to give the mother a book on pregnancy and newborns, the baby Where the Wild Things Are or Dr. Seuss, a Reading Rainbow book or Caldecott winner, some Boynton board books or a writer/illustrator new to the publishing scene. (Newborn clothes are outgrown, but books can last generations.) How about this gift for a preschooler: an empty refrigerator box, a pack of markers, a book about pirates and Treasure Island? Or cut open and tape together paper bags, trace their bodies with chalk pastels and give them a book about what’s under all that skin. Best present ever for a six-year-old? Ed Emberley’s thumb print books, a few packs of stamp pad ink and a couple Sharpies. For older kids, computer games that teach geography and history are terrific, and they can dovetail beautifully with a Dorling Kindersley book on castles or flags. I’m talking serious fun here, but also learning and literacy that Mario Brothers can’t offer.

I’ve seen picture books made of gorgeous poetry like “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening.” Speaking of poetry, Shel Silverstein is the best. Magazines for kids are amazing! Check out Kids Discover and Cricket. Look for old sets of encyclopedias at rummage sales. Much of the information has changed, but there’s no pleasure like lying on the floor with the L volume: the Leaning Tower of Pisa, lemmings, lemons, Leonardo da Vinci. What book or magazine to buy a teenager? Science Illustrated or The Best American Short Stories. Get a copy for yourself and read them together. (Or ask the librarian for a recommendation. Shell be thrilled.) If you ask for a Christmas list, maybe ask for a Christmas book list. Instead of Toys for Tots, how about Books for Tots? Instead of a pasta basket at the chance auction, maybe a few books and a gift certificate for the local independent bookstore.

I realize if you’ve gotten this far in my ramblings, you’re probably my friend, and your house is full of books. Maybe you read Writers Almanac every day, in which writer after writer talks about reading as a kid, growing up in a house of readers, or being sick or poor and finding escape or comfort or relief in books. One writer’s dad required each kid to bring a research question to the dinner table. My cousin kept grabbing his laptop at dinner recently, looking up questions that came up in our conversation. He went to a great college, took a semester abroad, served two years in the Peace Corps and now works for an N.G.O. in DC. It’s not all because he was a reader, but I bet it made a huge difference.

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