The lost art of reading books

When was the last time you read a book? Do you set aside time for reading? Research[1] shows that the time people spend reading simply for pleasure is steadily declining. In more affluent households, screen time is now replacing reading time. In poorer households, poor educational background as well as financial struggles has always hindered reading as a pastime.

I recall the day I gave my first English 110 lecture to a group of undergraduate students.[2] I was writing my name on the board when a voice piped up from behind me: “Ma’am, do we have to read books for this course?” to which I replied a firm “yes”. The response to my answer was “but what if I don’t like reading?”. I was taken aback. Two things had not occurred to me. Firstly, that students were unaware that an English literature course at university involved reading books. And secondly, that someone would admit publicly in a university environment that he/she did not enjoy reading. I didn’t bother to tell the students that the reading list for that year was far shorter than for an equivalent course at an overseas university.[3] I realised I was in for a tough semester ahead.

Students’ reluctance to read is a major problem for many teachers. How do you teach the magnificence of a text to students who have no interest in reading it? How do you impart the impact of an author’s works in literature, film and culture in general? How do you convey the beauty of a romantic poem or the dynamism of a free verse poem to a lecture hall full of students who would rather be texting or tweeting on their phones and tablets? It was a great challenge indeed!

Reading begins at home

One reason for this lack of interest in reading may be because of the kind of home environment in which a child grows up. According to Stats SA, the home environment greatly affects a child’s cognitive development

[4]: “Activities that involve playing, singing or reading and that stimulate the brain through all the senses can help improve their ability to think and communicate. Children living in poor households, where parents are less able to spend time or money to feed and educate them, may grow up in a less stimulating home environment.”

For children growing up in poorer areas, the lack of mental stimulation greatly affects development. Children seem to have a natural interest in stories and if this is not fostered, it may be lost. But how do we work around this problem? A non-profit organisation READ to RISE thinks they have found a solution.[5] They believe that book ownership makes all the difference. They raise funds for needy schools and buy new age-appropriate books for the learners. They believe that owning a new book encourages a child to become excited about reading. More importantly, they supply classrooms with mini-libraries – a shelf of brand new, age-appropriate books in a variety of home languages.

For more affluent households, a reading interest is likely to develop if parents are readers. However, parents are spending more time on their screens and this has a knock-on effect. Children learn by copying what they see. If it’s okay for mom and dad to spend more time on their screens, then surely it’s okay for them too? Ironically, it is parents who complain that their children are at fault.

And maybe we could pin this problem down to the format of the reading material itself (print books or e-books)? However, this does not seem to make any difference in terms of time spent reading.[6]  And this lack of reading is a problem when it comes to education as whole. Studies[7] have found that children who read more, also do better in other subjects, not just in language courses. They are also much more likely to be successful in life.

Does it matter what you read?

Although reading in itself is a good habit to foster, reading fiction in particular has many benefits[8]:

  • It encourages empathy for others
  • It allows readers to see events from another perspective
  • It gives access to what another ‘person’ is thinking (the characters or narrator)

If people do not read fiction, they won’t be able to empathise and that does not bode well in terms of caring for family, community or society at large. The only way that we can understand what others are going through is to put ourselves ‘in their shoes’.

How does reading a story differ from “watching” a story?

When we read a story, our brains have to work at imagining what is going on. As the great Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”[9]

A recent article in the Huffington Post suggests several reasons why book reading is far more beneficial to us than simply watching something on TV:

  • TV watching raises aggression levels in young children
  • TV watching lowers verbal reasoning skills in young children
  • TV watching is addictive
  • Reading increases connectivity to language areas in the brain
  • Reading makes your mind more alert
  • Reading enhances your memory
  • Reading can delay mental decline

Reading is a much more active pastime than passive TV watching. A friend recently commented that her toddler daughter completely zones out during her favourite TV show. She simply ignores every word her mother says. However, when they read a book together, her daughter is fully engaged in what is going on, pointing at pictures and repeating words out loud. This shows that reading is a much more positive form of mental stimulation.

Will reading for pleasure be part of the future?

So, what does the future look like when it comes to reading for pleasure? Will it become a thing of the past? As the well-known fantasy writer, Neil Gaiman[10] likes to point out, there will always be a place for books and people who want to read them. He does not believe that reading for pleasure is going anywhere, anytime soon. However, he does acknowledge a decline in the rates of reading in younger generations. He feels it is our duty, as literate adults, to nurture a love for reading books in children: “The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them”.

At  CambriLearn [11], we value education. Our online learning material is developed to help students work through subjects with which they are struggling. Understanding fiction plays an important role in answering comprehension questions. Here is a sample of an English lesson(click here) which looks at the key features of a novel. At CambriLearn we believe that reading is one of the best ways to expand your horizons.


[1] Pew Survey Shows Adult Reading in Decline

[2] This was at the University of Pretoria, South Africa

[3] A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, William Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer and Shakespeare’s Macbeth as well as a selection of poetry, were the prescribed texts for the semester module at that time. Kings College Cambridge, for example, has a first-year reading list which far exceeds this.

[4] Investing in early childhood development is the future

[5] #WeCareWednesdays: Inspiring children to read

[6] Pew Survey Shows Adult Reading in Decline

[7] Want to Raise Successful Kids? Neuroscience Says Read to Them Like This (but Most Parents Don’t)

[8] The long, steady decline of literary reading

[9] GoodReads

[10] Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming


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