: Why we don’t care what kids do instead of reading

(This exactly isn’t a writing tip, but I think it’s worth considering, anyway.)

I was recently on a panel, talking to a group of booksellers about Creating the Lifelong Reader. The moderator brought up a recent NEA study with the depressing news that kids, teens and college students are reading less than they were before. (I haven’t looked up the study, so I don’t know how much less, or how long ago “before” was.) The study also measured the amount of television watched by avid readers and by non readers, the assumption being that non readers would watch a lot more TV. But according to the study, non readers watched television only one hour a week more than the avid readers…so whatever they were doing instead of reading, TV wasn’t the culprit. The panel suggested a number of less worthy activities that might be distracting these poor lost souls. They might be playing video games, or into sports, or, or, or… How terrible that these other things interfered with kids’ reading.

Several weeks after the panel I told my writing group about that discussion, and they had a similar reaction. It wasn’t until the group had gone home and I was stuffing dirty mugs into the dishwasher that I suddenly realized that the whole question was based on a false premise.

The unspoken assumption behind this discussion is that if we could figure out what non readers are doing, and take it away from them, then (in desperate boredom) they’d have to turn to reading, right? If we could somehow take away their TV, and video games, and sports, and…

But if you’ve ever known a non reader (I’ve had two in my family) you know that it’s not that they like other things better than reading, it’s that they hate to read. It’s hard, it bores them, and they’d rather do almost anything else. If you took away TV and video games they’d call friends on the phone. If you took their phone, they’d do jigsaw puzzles, or learn to juggle, or draw. If you took those things away, they’d do the dishes, or clean their rooms, or take out the garbage. What they’re doing instead of reading is completely irrelevant—they don’t like reading. It’s not fun for them. The question isn’t: What are they doing instead of reading? The real question is: Can we somehow make reading fun for non readers? Fun, like it is for us avid types, so they’d rather pick up a good book than almost anything else. How can we get a book that will fire his imagination into a kid’s hands, a book that makes him want to read more?

I don’t know the answer, but at least we should start asking the right questions.

Fall 2005