This article was originally written for The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture
Americans have a reading problem. We seem to have lost our delight for reading. For starters, fewer of us can be found with our noses in a book these days. According to a recent Gallup poll, book readership is on the decline, with just 6% of U.S. adults naming reading as their favorite way to spend an evening. That’s down from 12% in 2016. During the height of the pandemic, when (presumably) we all had more time for leisure activities, Americans were more inclined to reach for the television remote than a bestselling novel. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. adults (age 15 and older) spent, on average, just 30 minutes per day reading in 2021, but upwards of three hours watching television.
A modest two-year increase in book sale activity between 2019 and 2021 had many observers believing the pandemic would give rise to a reading renaissance of sorts. But last year, those hopes were tempered when unit sales of print books fell 6.5%. Even more alarming than book-sale statistics is the percentage of Americans who have not picked up a book in the past 12 months. By one measure, roughly a quarter of American adults (23%) say they have not read a book in whole or part in the past year. Another study puts that figure closer to 50% and reports one in 10 adults hasn’t read a single book in the past decade.
And how’s this for a startling statistic: two-thirds of 4th graders in the U.S. cannot be classified as proficient readers. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) routinely measures trends in reading achievement among U.S. elementary and secondary students. NAEP’s 2022 report card showed average reading scores for 10-year-olds dropped three points compared to the previous testing period. Worse, in the 30 years since the current assessment framework was established, NAEP has reported no significant change in reading results. In other words, reading skills and proficiency levels have remained flat for three decades. No wonder reading isn’t a high priority for most adults.
Statistics like these ought to fuel a desire for closer scrutiny of America’s reading problem—in the classroom, but also in the broader public square. From a public policy standpoint, there is a lot of room for conversation about improving the state of reading in the U.S. For example, is it possible or even worthwhile to redirect the reading drift, or is reading passé in a digital age? How does reading benefit us as a society and as individuals? And are there habits we can cultivate that transcend reading? To even begin exploring the depths of these questions, we must start with a more fundamental question: Why read?
Through the ages, reading has been an essential tool to gain and share both wisdom and knowledge. For most of us, the why hinges on our need and desire to learn. Recent studies also affirm that regular reading is very, very good for our physical and mental health. Among other things, it improves brain connectivity, aids in sleep readiness, reduces stress, and prevents cognitive decline.
Yet, despite the benefits, far too many people equate reading not with delight but with drudgery. Therefore, any hope of reversing a diminished interest in—or for that matter, an underdeveloped appreciation for—reading must begin with a simple reminder: reading is intended to bring great pleasure.
Author and English professor Alan Jacobs suggests the view of reading as an irksome chore has been shaped, in part, by formulaic and prescriptive models of how and what to read—an eat-your-vegetables approach that may build intellectual muscle, but often leaves little room for amusement.
In his popular book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, Jacobs doesn’t wholesale ditch the old formulas, but offers an important addendum: read at whim. With this principle in mind, he gives readers permission to know and love books for their own sake. In other words, to read as an ends, not strictly a means.
“The book that simply demands to be read, for no good reason, is asking us to change our lives by putting aside what we usually think of as good reasons. It’s asking us to stop calculating. It’s asking us to do something for the plain old delight and interest of it,” writes Jacobs. He continues by encouraging readers to, “read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame.”
For me, this welcome advice harkens back to the days when my daughters were young and instantly captivated by the likes of Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket’s ill-fated Baudelaire family, or the Pevensie children in Narnia. Each new series was a marvelous escape for my girls into other worlds and experiences with a cadre of new friends and a host of adventures. Over time, they have been introduced to great literary fiction and learned to explicate Twain and Tolstoy, Shakespeare and Dickens. As they have moved through higher education and embarked on professional careers, I know their exposure to the masters of literature have served them well. Still, I believe it is the lingering delight of those early stories of childhood that keeps them engaged readers even today.
In fact, many readers who delight in the practice of reading can trace that pleasure back to childhood memories: trips to the library, the excitement of ordering new books from the Scholastic Book catalog, a parent reading bedtime stories. Jenn Floto is a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in Southern California. For more than three decades she has prepared undergrad and graduate students for careers in public relations. She’s also a life-long reader who credits family with instilling in her a love of books.
“My whole family were avid readers. Every memory I have is a book on the floor, a book next to the bed. On Sunday afternoons, we used to sit on the sundeck, and everybody had a book. It just was so much a part of our existence. It is part of my DNA.”
Floto knows the value of reading transcends a single book or a favorite author. While great books are not part of her curriculum, she aims to share the practical and less obvious benefits of reading with her students. “I have smart students, and I would say a third of them read very regularly. Of course, they’re the best writers.”
But Floto also acknowledges many of her students struggle with grammar. In those cases, she encourages them to give reading a serious try. “I recommend a magazine article or something fun to kind of fuel their interest a little bit. And they come back and you can see the enthusiasm on their faces. It just never dawned on them that reading isn’t just to learn; it’s to enjoy.”
If, then, we are mindful that the primary reason for reading is enjoyment, pleasure and delight, we are well equipped to cultivate the disciplines and appreciate the benefits reading well has to offer.
Reading Well in the 21st Century
It is true that there are easier ways to find enjoyment in the 21st century than committing to a 300-page book. Two alternatives come to mind: social media and video streaming. Social media is the great distractor. The average Internet user spends two and a half hours on social media each day. TikTok has amassed 1 billion users, with nearly 141 million Americans aged 18 and above actively spending time on the platform. Facebook remains the most popular social network, but YouTube has the most active users.
Meanwhile, streaming services are dramatically changing the way Americans receive content each day, as well as the volume and variety of content. Around 85% of U.S. households now have at least one subscription to a video streaming service, such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video or HBO Max. Many have multiple services. Overall, Americans streamed almost 15 million years’ worth of video content in 2021.
Given the current taste for all things instant, reading, particularly in long-form, seems like an antiquated and counter-intuitive activity in our fast-paced, digital age. Or perhaps it’s just what our distracted culture needs. According to Christian author Karen Swallow Prior, reading great literature well has the power to cultivate virtues essential for good character and a good life—virtues such as prudence, courage, love, patience, kindness and humility.
Swallow Prior is Research Professor of English and Christianity & Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a columnist at Religion News Service. In her 2018 book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, Swallow Prior writes, “Reading well adds to our life—not in the way a tool from the hardware store adds to our life, for a tool does us no good once lost or broken, but in the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us forever.”
In other words, good books, read well, make better people. Swallow Prior writes in Christianity Today: “Numerous studies by cognitive and behavioral scientists over the past several years have indicated that reading literacy fiction cultivates empathy. This is because literary fiction—which shows rather than tells, requires readers to make the same kind of predictions, assessments, and evaluations we must make every day in real life.”
Consider, for example, Jane Austen’s final novel, Persuasion, published shortly after her death. It is the story of unrequited love between Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth. But Swallow Prior contends that underneath the surface-level theme of the novel (captured straightforwardly in the title), runs the even more interesting theme of patience. She considers Anne Elliot to be “one of the most virtuously patient heroines in literature.” In On Reading Well, she guides the reader to a deeper understanding of patience through careful analysis of Anne’s character. More than simply reading words on a page, reading well involves the more complicated discipline of interpreting meaning within the actual text and the ability to then apply that insight in practical ways.
For Maddie Pannell, the practice of reading well has the potential to do more than make better people. It also creates the possibility to be a better Christian. She says “reading is a way that I can intentionally expose myself to perspectives and lives that are different than my own. I believe that is essential for seeing others, knowing others, and loving others the way that God would have us do as Christians.”
Pannell is a recent graduate of the University of Virginia, and currently works at the Center for Public Justice in Alexandria, Virginia. She is a member of the Capital Fellows, a Washington DC-based Christian leadership and discipleship program affiliated with Reformed Theological Seminary. Pannell credits reading with helping her cultivate a better sense of compassion, empathy and humility. “In a world of social media and short headlines, I think it’s easier to have animosity or to judge others rather than have compassion. But when I’m reading, I’m thinking about the world that I engage in instead of hiding from the world around me.”
Emily Harris shares those sentiments. A candidate for a Masters in Divinity and Christian Education Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, Harris believes reading is an important way to gain a holistic understanding of the world. “Reading is our ability to understand and reflect on how humanity has engaged with different movements throughout history. History repeats itself, so we are experiencing some of those same movements again today.”
In fact, reading has the ability to draw us closer together—across history; despite geography; regardless of age, race, cultural background or spiritual beliefs. Reading is a unifier. “There’s a companionship involved in reading,” says Harris. “It can be easy to feel alone in society, but when we’re reading, we are able to come alongside somebody. I’ve experienced books where I get attached to the characters. They become my friends, and I cry because I don’t want to say goodbye to them. Or I’m able to listen to someone else’s experience and feel like I just sat down to coffee with this person.”
Even as we read about virtue, reading well affords the opportunity to practice virtue. Or as Swallow Prior writes, “Just as water, over a long period of time, reshapes the land through which it runs, so too we are formed by the habit of reading good books well.”
For Harris, reading literature well helps her read the Bible well too. Reading literature with intentionality and a critical eye helps her better understand the story and characters involved. “It’s the same with scripture,” she says. “Before approaching a text, I learn about its context. I learn about the author. For example, if you think about the gospels, those were written by four different individuals. They each came from their own perspectives. They wrote at different times. It’s very helpful to know the background before I engage in the reading.”
As we mature in our reading, we acquire more than a few good habits. For example, reading helps us cultivate a greater capacity to focus, a skill that has diminished as social media’s popularity and proliferation has increased. The attention span required to read in 280-character increments is much abbreviated from the brain power needed to attend to a 20-page chapter.
We ponder more when we make a practice of reading. Not in a day-dreaming sense (although that would fall into the category of delightful pleasure, which we’ve already established as the fundamental reason for reading). Pondering as in ruminating on big ideas or unpacking intricate concepts.
Of course, our vocabulary expands the more we read, as does our appreciation for the mechanics of language and the cleverness of a talented wordsmith.
Then there’s the grace we learn to extend ourselves in pursuit of an enchanting story. Or, as Jenn Floto says, “Giving yourself permission to take time to read. Afterall, nobody thinks anything of it when we say we’re going to spend time watching a movie or binging a television show. Yet, confess to staying up late to finish a good book? That’s a different story. I don’t think that happens to everybody, but I think discipline a big part of it.”
In fact, reading well involves a measure of discipline and delight in combination. Here, we return to Professor Jacobs, whose dominant principle for reading you’ll recall is to read at whim. But by his own admission, whim cannot be everything. “My whim may take me to the same books always, but I am confronted by that iron-clad Law of Diminishing Returns. I simply must turn elsewhere, to seek out alternatives.”
In other words, the enjoyment derived from a particular book or a favorite author, begins to lose its allure over time. My copy of Amor Towles’ bestseller, A Gentleman in Moscow, is worn and dogeared from repeated readings. I still find great pleasure in turning the pages of this well-crafted story, but confess that my original enchantment with Count Rostov’s unconventional exploits at the grand Metropol hotel has waned with each reading. No secrets remain to be uncovered; they are merely savored like an old friend.
Likewise, when I went through my Jan Karon phase, I gobbled up each new installment of Father Timothy Kavanagh and the cast of quirky characters in the charming fictional town of Mitford, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. When Karon ended the series, it felt like saying a last goodbye to old friends. I tried to fill the gap with similar series from other authors, but there was no comparison. I literally and figuratively had to close the book on Mitford.
In these moments Jacobs offers wise counsel: it’s time to look upstream, lest we fall into a trap of aimless wandering and literary boredom. “If you turn upstream to see where your favorite authors came from, intellectually speaking, you may discover all sorts of works that are fascinating, illuminating—but also, yes, challenging.”
Whether we’re reading popular fiction like Towles and Karon or literary giants like Tolkien and Austen, looking upstream allows us an opportunity to tap into the power of the very writers and thinkers who inspired and deepened the sensibilities of our current favorites. This is what Jacobs calls, “swimming up the literary stream,” and it’s how we stretch our minds. It’s how we gradually learn to truly read well.
Reversing the Trend
For those of us who stay awake into the wee hours of the night just to find out whodunnit, how do we encourage others to join this reverie we call reading?
“I think it’s kind of a personal discovery,” says Floto. “I don’t think you can force the classics on anybody.” But you can influence others, which is what Floto does every summer when she kicks-off her personal summer reading challenge. She reads upwards of 20 books between June and September and shares her reviews with more than a thousand friends on Facebook.
Maddie Pannell shares a similar view: “The books I read influence the work I do at the Center for Public Justice, but the greatest sphere of influence I have are my personal relationships. I would love to change the world, but I’ve also recognized that sometimes, the world I have to change is just the little world that I’m in.”
Emily Harris’ solution? “Read something fun!” She acknowledges that the current culture values instant gratification and convincing some folks to pick up a book when they can read a review or watch the movie instead is a struggle. But reading something light, especially for classmates bogged down by the rigors of school, can be a tonic. “That’s why I love to read the young adult books. They’re light and don’t require a lot of me, and they reinvigorate my love for reading.”
Of course, when it comes to influencing, some of us enjoy larger platforms than others. For more than 25 years, Oprah’s Book Club has introduced generations of readers to prominent and emerging authors. Reese Witherspoon has been recommending her favorite books to readers since 2017.
And now Jenna Bush Hagar, co-host of “Today with Hoda & Jenna,” has entered the book club fray with the #ReadWithJenna book club. “I love reading for so many reasons,” says Hagar on the Today website. “It really is my escape from everyday life. It’s how I calm down. It’s how I detach. It’s how I fall in love with other places that I will never go to. It’s how I empathize with characters who are nothing like me. There’s nothing like falling in love with a book.”
Of course, Hagar hails from a renowned family of readers. Her mother, former First Lady Laura Bush, was a librarian, and her grandmother, former First Lady Barbara Bush, was a devoted literacy advocate. And Hagar’s father, former President George W. Bush, known for reading two books a week while in the Oval Office, is in the company of other high-volume readers, such as Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
Hagar’s book club platform now ranks among the top influencers. On Instagram alone she has more than 1.3 million followers with an additional 211 thousand followers on her @readwithjenna account. She has become a “publishing tastemaker,” with nearly every title she has selected or recommended since joining Today landing on the bestseller list.
Hagar and other digital influencers may prove an important force in reversing the decline in reading habits in the U.S. An ironic turn of events, considering social media’s likely role in contributing to that decline.
Reading influencers are not limited to the celebrity variety. There are numerous online or subscriptions options, such as Goodreads, Book of the Month or Scholastic Book Club. Even think tanks and non-profits are jumping into the action. For example, The Trinity Forum, a faith-based Christian non-profit, recently introduced its Bookclub Box, a selection of classic literature readings packaged with discussion guides, hosting tips and other resources to make launching a reading group simple and straightforward.
The statistics on reading may paint a gloomy picture, but for millions of Americans, the delight of reading remains a strong gravitational pull. The way forward will be to harness that delight in creative ways, even as we continue the quest to reading well.
 Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 16 and 23.
 Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2018), p. 18.
 Swallow Prior, On Reading Well, p. 19.
 Jacobs, Pleasures of Reading, p. 35.
 Ibid, p. 46.
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