Why don’t Americans read more?

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I have two nephews, ages almost-five and however-old-toddlers-are. It should surprise no one with youngsters in their home that my entire Christmas evolved around this two tiny people, and I discovered early on that all three of us share a great affection for reading. Moreover, the shared reading gave the three of us very different individuals – myself most notably not being a toddler – something to talk about. How grand, to find common ground and unity in the pages of a book!

Now, my own personal booklist has been in a shoddy state of malnourishment for the last two years – I blame my college homework requirements entirely – so having a good excuse to sit down for a few quiet minutes and meander through the colorful and varied worlds of Dr. Seuss, alphabet books and a particularly detailed hard-bound copy of Prehistoric Life was just what I needed.

Everyone in my family reads. My sisters read about accounting and economics. My brothers read about philosophy, the environment and human behavior. My dad reads about religion and history, my mom reads histories and biographies, my youngest siblings read novels and literary classics.

I read Harry Potter.

Alright, I will grant you, my booklist is much more extensive than that.

In the last year, I have picked up recommendations for books varying from biochemical proofs against Darwinism, color perception through language lenses and American baseball legends.

Every time I walk past one of the books I am only half-way into, I find myself feeling slightly guilty. It just should not take a person a year and a half to finish reading anything.

My brother-in-law is nice about it, but I am sure he wants his copy of “Killing in War” – I have had it for three years and I am only on the second chapter.

The benefits of reading are numerous. Aside from the obvious enlightenment, studies have shown that it improves memory, reduces stress, helps analytical skills, cultivates stronger vocabulary and mediates anxiety or high-energy levels.

So why don’t Americans read more books?

For the sake of argument, I am going to leave the reading habits of my extraordinarily nerdy family out of the equation and assume that people read about as much as I do – a rate of about a book and a couple half books a year.

(Actually, the average American reads about four books a year, according to 2016 statistics).

It is the half-finished book rate that is so embarrassing to me. I do not know why my attention span has failed me so greatly, but finishing a book always seems to be much harder than starting one.

I just recently downloaded an app on my phone that tracks my screen time. I would highly recommend this if you feel like you spend too much time staring at a screen – find out exactly how addicted you really are!

I am pretty addicted.

Now, a lot of my job description requires me to be on the phone, but I certainly don’t need to spend the 45 minutes a day on Instagram that I do.

That is 45 minutes that I could be reading.

This got me thinking. If I, as an adult who did not grown up with technology at my fingertips – unless you count giga pets – struggle with balancing real-life edification against cyber indulgence, how much more difficult must this be for younger generations who are growing up with iPads and smartphones in front of their eyes all the time?

When was the last time you saw a kid reading a book?

When I was a kid, I read books all the time. Every time I told my dad, “I’m bored,” he would say, “Go read a book.”

Come to think of it, when was the last time you saw a kid being bored?

Smartphones and hand-held technology have changed childhood. There is no downtime for the mind with a phone in the hand. There is no space for the brain to breathe, to rest, to meander down paths created only by its own imagination.

What a terrible thought. Are we hampering children’s imaginations by giving them access to smartphones? Are we hampering our own? What is really happening when we refuse to let ourselves get bored?

Pamela Paul wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times this week claiming that boredom is actually a tool to condition our minds. Life will not, after all, be an endless stream of entertainment, in her words.

This is true.

When I think about those 45 minutes I spend on Instagram every day, they are usually not sequential. They are stolen seconds in an elevator, during a walk from class to my car, waiting on a phone call or friend or the day’s next task. Instead of absorbing the moment, letting my mind wander, observe, drink in and process, I turn to something I can quickly amuse myself with.

My mind is not good at sitting still, but perhaps that is because I have not trained it to.

Perhaps I cannot seem to finish a book because I have not practiced finishing books.

When I was a little girl, my mom used to take me to the library all the time (East County has some great libraries, in case anyone needs a quiet nook to curl up with something new). My siblings and I would pick out stacks and stacks of library books and my mom would spend a week reading and rereading them to us before we returned them to the library to exchange them for more.

I read because my family reads. They set a great example and fostered in me a desire to continually learn.

But the practice of finishing what one begins is something that only the self can do.

What is that line about leading a horse to water?

All this technology has actually made it easier to consumer written material than ever before. Books are more accessible and more affordable now than any time in history. They surround us like a garden full of nutritious, free fruit – and we are ignoring it.

How do we get ourselves and our children reading again?

I do not honestly think the answer is newfangled and absurd. I think the answer is to simply make time. The same way we make time to sit down with the tiniest people in our lives – setting aside dirty dishes and projects that need finishing, postponing a call and pocketing our phones ¬– we ought to prioritize the health and growth of our own minds as well.

We would be, collectively, a much more highly achieving people, and individually much more at rest, if we dedicated as much zeal to the continued pursuit of self-taught enlightenment through printed pages as we do to scrolling aimlessly across the infinite web of mind-numbing amusements in our hands.

It is a lesson I preach to myself as much as to anyone else, but it helps when we have a community that positively pressures us to do more. We can always keep each other accountable, foster an environment where reading and not phone-scrolling is the norm.

So, this time next year, ask me about all those half-read books and we can talk about grand things.


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