Search for “the benefits of reading” and many articles, lists, blogs, and studies will pop up with great arguments as to why everyone should read often. Avid readers become better at taking standardized tests, writing, and thinking creatively. They can even reap the benefits of warding off mental decline and extending their life spans.
Few resources, however, talk about what happens when students do not read.
Reading is a mental workout―and, like working out, it is not easy at first. It can be very difficult and even discouraging, since it can be hard to notice small, incremental improvements in ability. It takes focus, patience, and effort. Sometimes, it takes a blow to the ego, since it can sting to realize that some books are more challenging than expected. Like the crowd in the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” it can be difficult for us to ask “Is this confusing?” because we run the risk of looking like simpletons. While reading two books last year, I almost gave up on myself, thinking that I could never really understand the technical jargon, dialects, or world-building. Saying “I cannot do this” is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy―and I realized that I had nothing to lose but everything to gain by pushing myself. It turns out that I was stuck in a warm-up phase, and only had to get into the rhythm of the work.
I have noticed that if I do not read for a long span of time my reading skills atrophy. It seems that reading the back of a cereal box each day is not great preparation for tackling a mountainous book like Dune, just as sprinting is not sufficient practice for a marathon. Literacy declines due to laziness. This matters because when I have to prepare to vote, which requires reading articles, legalese and poorly-written candidate statements, I have to muster up skills I have been letting atrophy.
The most important reading material is often the most challenging to read, and when I put off reading enjoyable novels, I am even less likely to delve into reading something like a complete news article with a misleading headline. This can have dire consequences, since all too often reporters place key contextual information deep into the article. The headline is meant to spark anger and frustration, but it takes patience to read through the entire article to take in the full picture―which is often much less provocative. Yellow journalism―of the same vein that flung us into the Spanish-American War―is still common, which means that I, as a citizen, have to avoid being reactionary. It means I have to read more to understand more perspectives and cultures. Reading the news thoroughly―reading entire articles from multiple sources―allows me to be a more informed voter. Neglecting to read makes me an ignorant and less empathetic voter.
I know a woman who votes by randomly filling in the bubbles. I consider her negligence and irresponsibility to be shocking, disappointing, and sad and even infuriating. So many people on this planet would love to be able to vote and read, but she has no appreciation for either right. She also has little empathy, defaulting to a defensive mode when political discussions arise and refusing to read into matters to achieve a better understanding of key issues. She has strong opinions but does not do enough research to understand much about each topic. She is too lazy to research anything because that requires reading. She falls hard for the “us-vs-them” mentality since that mindset takes less effort. If she read for pleasure, she would hone the skills needed to understand more challenging content and become a better citizen of her country and the world.
While reading helps me challenge my own beliefs and think for myself, not reading makes me more complacent. I suffer from inertia―and my brain is like an object that, when at rest, tends to stay at rest. While rest is important, too much rest is not rest at all but rot. Skills cannot be maintained―we can either enhance them or let them atrophy. I learned this from reading―and from not reading―and from watching a silly television show. In 2020, when fires were crawling ever closer to my home and I had to choose between inhaling smoke or more CO2, I tried to tune out the stress by watching Kitchen Nightmares. So many terrible cooks yelled at Gordon Ramsey, singing the same tune each failing restaurateur before them sang: “I have been doing this for decades. I won awards.” They clung to their past success and their experience the way Scarlet O’Hara clung to a rotten carrot: with anger and pain burning inside them. They did not realize that skills require enhancement, constant maintenance, and changes in perspective. Being skilled requires a healthy ego, not a defensive one. People betray themselves. They think they cannot improve or they need not improve. They become complacent. I have betrayed myself by giving up, by saying things like “this book is too difficult for me to read” or “I will never catch up with the news.” It is only when I compel myself to read and push my mind that I realize that I am slowly making progress―that I am slowly becoming more empathic, more informed, and more responsible.
Reading is not an easy feat―but not reading is far too dangerous.