A torrent of words and information — PowerPoint slides, textbook pages, text messages, Tumblr posts — pervades every moment of a college student’s day. The act of reading consumes class and homework time, and perusing blog posts and Facebook messages fills leisure time. Understandably, this endless stream of letters has left many students disenchanted with the written word. English majors aside, most students just don’t have any mental energy left to devote to pleasure reading. When in need of some relaxation, it’s second nature to reach for a laptop rather than the stiff pages of a book.
A 2005 study by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute found that 39 percent of college freshmen never read for pleasure, while 26 percent read for less than an hour in a given week. The percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds reading literature recreationally declined 18 percentage points between 1982 and 2002.
Such reports are quick to suggest that young adult reading is in complete decline. Young adults are reading, but just not for pleasure, unless skimming through that macroeconomics textbook qualifies as enjoyable. These reports must clarify that a lack of recreational reading — not reading in general — is the problem. Perusing blogs, magazines and the Yahoo news, although better than nothing, simply doesn’t compare to reading an actual book, bulky pages and all.
The increase in Internet connections in homes over the past 30 years directly correlates to this decline in pleasure reading. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that average annual spending on books dropped 14 percent from 1985 to 2005. Meanwhile, consumer electronics spending shows no signs of slowing, with Gfk Digital World predicting a 5 percent increase for 2012 alone. It doesn’t take a microscope to see what Americans are buying and, therefore, where their priorities lie.
Electronic media has redefined leisure time. The Internet is a fantastical world of distractions and stimulants, a place where the boundaries of time blur and instant gratification abounds. Books lack the easily accessible stimulation of the Internet and television. A reader must work for the pleasures lying within books. They require focus and persistence and commitment, qualities not often demanded by the flighty world of electronic media. All the action occurs in the reader’s mind, making reading a highly personalized and intimate experience.
The solitary nature of reading undoubtedly turns off many young adults. We are always interacting with one another, whether gossiping in class, texting during breaks or instant messaging after retiring to our rooms. We view social interaction as a miser does money: the more you have of it, the greater your happiness. Reading is often stigmatized as an asocial activity. The archetypal bookworm has few friends and would rather lose herself in a fantasy world than interact with real humans. Instead of viewing reading as an activity reserved for social pariahs, we must remember the days of the literary salon, where brilliant minds met to debate and converse with one another.
College students have limited free time, so maybe this explains why so few are willing to expend their precious leisure hours reading a book. In hindsight, reading for a few hours is too indulgent, because these activities don’t get you ahead in your studies or social life.
If college students could learn to pull the power plug every now and then, maybe they would come home looking forward to being absorbed in the marvelous worlds of Jane Austen or J.R.R. Tolkien rather than the world of electronic social trivialities, also known as the Facebook newsfeed. For those of us still too consumed by our iPhones and MacBooks to pause and read this column in its entirety, I’ve compiled a brief list of reasons to read books:
1. A book is just as thrilling as a TV show or movie, only one-third of its bulk isn’t dedicated to commercials.
2. Reading naturally expands one’s vocabulary. New vocabulary words stick incomparably better when encountered in their natural habitats.
3. Books improve conversation skills in more ways than one. Learn the art of confabulation from the masters. Want to learn to speak like a proper Englishman? Pick up “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Care to converse like an astrophysicist? Don’t hesitate to read any of Stephen Hawking’s books. Or wax poetic like Maya Angelou via “Phenomenal Woman.”
4. Books make the reader interesting. Reading is learning — learning about cultures, places, people, events. The more you learn, the more you know, the more interesting you are. How did the Dos Equis Most Interesting Man in the World come to be? By reading. Don’t question it.
5. Books allow for world exploration without leaving the couch. Reading is traveling without the hassle of going through security.
The next time the TV remote calls your name, reach for a book instead. You just might find fulfillment along the way.
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