Op-ed: Read, even if you don’t have to

Wednesday, August 7, 2019 - 6:35pm

I remember my early childhood as the stack of picture books my parents read to my brother and me each night before we went to bed. My consistent reading habits were rooted in these bedtime stories and grew throughout my primary school experience. I would take bi-weekly library trips with my mom that would result in her cutting the stack of eight novels I brought up to checkout to four. I had every reading phase a young, Gen Z child could have, from my obsession with “Harry Potter” to the classic “Little House on the Prairie,” both of which I enjoyed while using the flashlight I hid under my bed so I could stay up for “just one more chapter.” But as life got busier and filled with school, work and the balance of everything else, recreational reading began to take a backseat in my life.

I’m a communication studies and film, television and media double major. I am an editor and (sometimes) writer for The Michigan Daily. I research current events and build presentations for the Residential College forum I co-facilitate. I’ve spent the last 10 weeks of my summer working as an archival research assistant. While I still read constantly, it’s hard to find the drive to read anything not assigned to me in one of my communication-centered obligations.  I’m confident this feeling is a popular sentiment among other college students.

Research highlights that reading for pleasure can lead to an increase in empathy, improved interpersonal relationships, reductions in the effects of depression and an increase in general well-being. Additionally, promoting reading for pleasure — especially among children — is considered so important that professors like Jeffrey D. Wilhelm dub it a civil rights issue, an argument taken by him and colleague Michael W. Smith in their book “Reading Unbound,” due to pleasure reading being a “more powerful predictor than even parental socioeconomic status and educational attainment.” Major longitudinal studies highlight the same set of facts about reading in youth: It is one of the greatest explanatory factors of cognitive progress and social mobility

However, despite these benefits, the 2018 American Time Use Survey performed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the share of Americans 15 and older who read for pleasure fell by more than 30 percent since 2004 — dropping from 28 percent to 19 percent. This raises the question: If the general American public isn’t prioritizing reading, how is the next generation going to?

While my reading has decreased over the past few years, my connection to it has not. I still acknowledge the impact of reading and writing on my thinking, on my understanding of the world and other identities, on me as a person. Reading provides insight into alternative experiences and perspectives — it is an introduction to the world as a multi-dimensional and complex space. These are the benefits of reading that every English teacher has raved about, but it’s something that American citizens — including myself — need to do a better job of encouraging in our communities and daily lives. We cannot allow reading rates to continue to decrease. We must push ourselves and those around us, especially those younger than us, to centralize reading. 

My inspiration for this op-ed spurred from the unfortunate passing of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison on Monday. Morrison’s contributions to literature are prolific, with a body of work that spans 11 novels and also includes both children’s books and essay collections. Her novels, which were revered by both the public and critics, illuminate the Black — and largely female — experience through awe-inspiring prose. Reading about her loss saddened me on behalf of the American public. Her words impacted so many minds and hearts. “Beloved,” the winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize and one of my favorite novels of all time, taught me lessons about home, memory and gender that I didn’t know I needed to learn until after I closed back cover. And these feelings of mourning have been common, as evident from the outcries of sympathy and admiration by famous figures, as well as the posts by many of my friends, indicating a deeper emotional and social connection to reading that should be spread throughout our country.

Literature is a space for the explanation of riveting, complex and important ideas, and reading is a space to reflect on society through these stories. Reading and written communication are integral parts of society, and something we all should be supporting. Let’s bring it back to the forefront of popular and critical culture.

Erin White is the Summer Editorial Page Editor and can be reached at ekwhite@umich.edu.