Why Books Matter

May 31, 2010

One of my New Year’s resolutions was that I would post on this blog more. Well, better late than never.

On Postbourgie, Shani highlights an interesting study from the Chronicle of Higher Education blog. The study found that children who grew up in a house with 500+ books stay in school three years longer than kids who grew up in homes with fewer books.

Thus it seems that scholarly culture, and the taste for books that it brings, flows from generation to generation largely of its own accord, little affected by education, occupational status, or other aspects of class … Parents give their infants toy books to play with in the bath; read stories to little children at bed-time; give books as presents to older children; talk, explain, imagine, fantasize, and play with words unceasingly. Their children get a taste for all this, learn the words, master the skills, buy the books. And that pays off handsomely in schools.

It definitely worked for me. I was a bookworm to the max as a kid, reading so many books my parents sometimes asked me to read LESS and go spend some time outdoors playing kickball or whatever. Until high school, when I became too busy with academics and extracurriculars, reading for pleasure was one of my favorite things to do. In summers, I’d take a book and read outside. And when the weather was too hot to handle, I’d seek refuge in the air-conditioned library, full of hundreds of books and magazines.

Shani also points out in her post that not everyone can buy hundreds of books, and wonders where library memberships fit into this research – I’d have to agree that I wonder if kids whose parents hold library memberships and take them to the library regularly develop the same appreciation for reading and ideas. For me as a kid, getting to go the library was always a treat ; my parents took us almost weekly, and moreso in summer to help stave off boredom from not being occupied with school all week. Taking me and my brother to the library regularly was a good thing for them because it helped keep their kids occupied so we wouldn’t drive them up the walls at home. For us, though, I think it had a profound impact on how we grew up and what we value now. It instilled in both of us an interest in learning about the world around us, and taught us to question everything.

Today I’m on the internet almost all the time, but still have a lust for reading… I’ve just put a large part of my reading efforts into Google Reader. But I still love buying and reading fresh, clean, new books from bookstores, and think it’s incredibly important that today’s kids and students are still being encouraged to read books, and not the iPad kind. By the time I was in high school I was reading less books for pleasure – presumably because I was busy with academics, extracurriculars, and with trying to get into college, but I wonder if it also had something to do with the fact that the internet was growing in popularity by then. In high school I would much rather spend the hours after class IMing my friends (remember AOL ?!)  than reading a book; the only books I managed to read through those four years were the ones assigned to us in school.

I’ve written before about my questions on what will happen to books in an increasingly digital era; given the new research that’s out there about the impact books have on children as they grow, it seems books are more important than ever. I don’t think it matters whether the books are at home or in a library, as long as kids have access to books on a regular basis and are encouraged to read for pleasure, both by parents and teachers. That, I think, is what it takes to develop that “scholarly culture” found in bookish families – not just access to lots of books, but also encouragement from adults to kids to spend their time reading books.

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