The epidemic of the non-reader
April 2, 2019
I used to be an avid reader, with an emphasis on “used to.” I was the type of child to bring a book with me everywhere. At family functions, I would avoid cheek-pinching relatives and hide in an empty bedroom, head bowed over the newest “Percy Jackson” installment. Late at night, on car rides home, I would greedily lap up every beam of passing lamplight to catch even a glimpse of the next few sentences, giving myself quite the headache from squinting.
I was a fast reader, once challenging myself to read the first “Divergent” novel in less than two days. I won a contest for reading over 100 books in one summer. I took talent development courses in elementary school where we read the “Secret Garden” for fun. High school was different, I read the books that would be adapted into movies like “Hunger Games,” or anything written by John Green. I also read the books required for class. By my senior year, I was proud to even have slogged my way through “Friday Night Lights” for an English class.
Fast forward to college and the last thing I read – skimmed, rather – was a required textbook on the pitfalls of our generation. I know our generation as Gen Z, but the textbook satirically called us “iGen” as the author brutally called out our inability to put our phones down. The book told me my generation is, and I quote from the title, “completely unprepared for adulthood.”
It was a bit of a slap in the face.
Almost sheepish, I tried to pick up a book over Spring Break, determined to read a few chapters every night and get myself back into the habit. My bookshelves at home are filled with the “Harry Potter” series, “The Mortal Instruments” and dozens of unread young adult novels. Unsatisfied with any of them, and regretting my taste in overwhelmingly cis-het romance novels during high school, I went to Goodwill for some more options.
What I found was so, so sad. Adults my mother’s age were kneeling on the linoleum floors while they read the back covers of what could debatably be called erotica, decorated in drawings of swooning women and well-oiled men. I picked through the dozen of “Twilight” novels sold at half price, and felt a deep pit of despair in my stomach for all the aspiring authors whose life works had been tossed into a cardboard box, given away and sold for a couple dollars in the back of a thrift store. Unread. Unwanted, except by middle-age moms.
Regardless, I found three books that suited my needs and prepared to immerse myself in the world of literature. In truth, I only made it through about forty pages – and I haven’t picked it up since. The book was genuinely interesting, but whenever I go to reach for the novel, it’s almost like I hit a mental roadblock. My brain groans at the thought of thinking harder than necessary, when pretty pictures and funny blog posts are only a click away on my cell phone. I physically cannot force myself to pick up a book.
And I’m not the only one.
I asked a friend if she ever reads “for fun,” and she gave me a snort. “. . . No!” Laughing, she elaborated. “There’s just no time.” She did, however, read a required textbook on the Underground Railroad last semester. Sounds fascinating.
Another friend admits she hasn’t picked up a physical book in a long while, but she reads fanfiction on her phone. I’m fond of fanfiction myself; endless stories about my favorite characters, with different settings, different motivations, different outcomes, most of them incredibly well written. It’s a veritable goldmine, but if it actually counts as “reading” could be debated. You wouldn’t compare a thousand word fanfiction in which the characters of “Glee” are . . . I don’t know, cats to something like Oliver Twist.
With a few exceptions, I started to notice a pattern among my peers – a phenomenon I’d like to call the “epidemic of the non-reader.” (It just sounded cool).
Reading, it seems, has become a burden to students, when it used to be an escape.
Statistics seem to differ on the amount of books college students actually read. A survey from PEW research center in 2015 said that compared to high schoolers, who may only read an average of three books in a year, college students are reading seventeen.
A great deal of the students I spoke with disagreed; “there’s no time to read,” they said, or “everything I read is mind-numbing – textbooks, or required readings like the ‘Grapes of Wrath.’” In the era of SparkNotes and Cliff Notes, it’s easy to pretend to read literary classics. These websites assist in cutting down reading time greatly – which is one of the main factors in why students aren’t reading.
Reading takes time and is energy intensive; even the most dedicated students do not have the energy to analyze thirty chapters on the acidity of soil on top of their other courses, work, social lives, and – of course – sleeping and eating. The last two, of which, many college students forgo entirely just to complete their textbook work.
PEW’s research suggests colleges look into digital book reading options or audio books to reclaim students attention. But I don’t think it’s the medium that’s the issue; it’s the content.
I once had passion for reading – where did that go?
Was it squashed, the first time I was made to read the memoir of some author I don’t care about in middle school? Was it in high school, when the textbooks that weighed down my backpack were ridiculously dull, but the only thing keeping me from failing my psychology course? Was it in college, where every class has three textbooks.
And let’s not forget, I am taking an English course – but the book they want me to read tells me how my generation, “iGen,” is a let down because skimming social media gives us more pleasure – in less time – than reading a newspaper ever will.
I’m not trying to make a blanket statement about all college students across all campuses; but the fact remains. The books students are reading in college are not the ones they want to be reading.
Kacey Joslin is a former student at UW-River Falls.