Books and the Good Life – Part 2

There is no substitute for books in the life of a child.
~ Mary Ellen Chase ~

A lot of resources are dedicated to making sure that people can and do read.  Illiteracy is deemed a bad thing because so much of life revolves around the ability to read.  But the ability and the desire to read are two different things.  It seems right that the government wants all children to be able to read.  They will need to read to get by in life.  But why do we spend so much time, energy, and money trying to persuade kids to enjoy reading?  It makes sense that those of us who love reading want to share that joy with everyone else.  We love sharing any interest with others.  But we do not expend the same efforts trying to get children to enjoy other things that we do.  We usually let them choose what they love and then help them pursue that activity.  Reading is one of the few things that we encourage on every child.

There are definitely some positive externalities that come with reading.  It improves your mind.  Memory, vocabulary, and language skills are all enhanced by reading.  Doctors say that people should keep their mind active to stave off Alzheimer’s and other brain degenerative diseases.  Are these externalities the reason that we encourage people to read?

We can contrast this with another thing that we pressure everyone to do: exercise.  Exercise is promoted as one part of healthy living.  Here, we encourage the activity because of its effects.  The primary goal of exercise is to stay healthy.  Reading keeps us healthy as well – it keeps our minds sharp.  But do we really encourage it for that reason?  I do not think of these positive health effects of reading as the main reason it is encouraged.  We read for the story, for the writing.  We read for the feeling it gives us or to pass the time.  I’m not sure that the positive health effects of reading are the reason that we promote it.

Perhaps there is another reason that we encourage reading.  Maybe all of this is left over from the days when people had to read to be cultured.  To be well read was an asset in society.  Read any 19th century novel and you will see how drawing room discussions often focused on literature.  Also, back then, a lot of novels were published as serials so everyone was reading the same thing and could discuss what they thought would happen next.  If you didn’t read, you would be left out of the conversation.  Today, people do not need to read to be successful.  Many of the most successful people in the world probably do not read at all.  But we still put some value on being well read.  It is a sign of intelligence to be a reader.  Do we simply want our children to be viewed as intelligent or cultured?  Could that be why we encourage them to read?

Maybe there is no good reason for encouraging reading for its own sake?  I can’t really come up with a good reason for persuading others to read that makes reading a good thing on its own.  At the same time, I absolutely believe that books are a good thing and should be encouraged.  I hope that this paper can tackle this issue by illustrating why I love reading.  With a bit of luck, there will be some sort of answer to the question “why do we read?” hidden in its midst.

3 thoughts on “Books and the Good Life – Part 2

  1. Kristie March 25, 2008 / 1:56 pm

    For me personally I think it's hard to explain why I think people should read. I do agree with keeping your mind sharp and the extended vocabulary–sometimes I say words and Nick asks, "Did you seriously just use that word?" because it's not a common word (I tend to do this with Austen 🙂 ). I think I would want people to read for entertainment. I read mostly for entertainment, but I do feel a sort of being privileged or cultured because I've read so many classics. I don't think it's necessary to love reading to succeed, but it sure can't hurt you. (Again, very interesting paper…I'm a bit behind on reading as you post lol)


  2. Michelle March 26, 2008 / 7:36 am

    Yeah, I found this a really hard question and I don't think I ever really answered it. I want everyone to read, but I can't really explain why except that I love it.And thanks for posting on each of these. I was starting to think that people were bored with them. 🙂


  3. Phaedrus April 2, 2008 / 9:14 am

    I think the answer lies in your page quote. If you don't read you are surrendering to self imposed ignorance. A person simply can not be a well rounded, cultured, and educated person without the love of reading. It denotes a lack of curiosity about the world and about other people. I love to read and certainly don't do it enough!


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