How not reading impairs social and political participation

“The greatest boon parents can give their children is to inculcate in them a love of reading at the earliest age…”

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.
                                                           –Joseph Addison

The number of newspaper readers is plunging by the millions in most countries, including Canada and the United States. In an article in the New York Times a few months ago, Dan Kennedy reported that “the newspaper business is a shell of its former self. . . still utterly reliant on shrunken print editions for most of its revenues, still tethered to massive printing presses, tons of paper, and fleets of delivery trucks, while efforts to develop new sources of digital revenue have largely come to naught.”

The number of metro dailies in North America that have been forced to close, merge, or drastically reduce their size or frequency runs into the hundreds. In Canada, the big-city papers that still survive, including the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun, and the Montreal Gazette, have had their paid circulations — and thus their editorial staffs — sharply reduced, some nearly by half.

In Canada this massive loss of readers and revenue has led to the concentration of media ownership (including TV and radio networks) in the hands of a few large conglomerates. This kind of monopoly induces a much lower standard of news coverage.

“They are not terribly interested in news quality because that is not their priority. Newspapers they deem not profitable, or not profitable enough, are simply closed,” explains Dale Eisler of the Johnson Shoyama School School of Public Policy.

“There is then a loss of local news, and owners are also reducing foreign bureaus, again limiting news resources.”

Eisler is concerned that the decline in newspapers may be causing a decline of reading, and therefore a decline in democracy. He quotes Thomas Jefferson’s famous declaration that, “If I were faced with a choice between government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I would choose the latter.”

Eisler fears that, today, two-and-a-half centuries later, “Jefferson’s choice might actually be tested.”

Did illiteracy help Trump win?

That test may already have occurred in last year’s presidential election in the United States, won by Donald Trump. How many of the millions who voted for Trump are habitual readers, and hence capable of thinking objectively? According to a study conducted last year by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 43 percent of American adults read at a basic or below basic level — and there is strong evidence that voters’ level of education was a critical factor in how they voted relative to the previous presidential election.

Not all of Trump’s supporters lack intelligence, by any means. But it’s safe to assume that many rarely read books, or even a newspaper, and derive their “news” and views from ideological Internet sources that don’t stimulate their intellects. How else could they so stubbornly assert ‘alternate facts’ that have been refuted time and time again by reliable sources? In the political arena, that certainly included the bombastic speeches and tweets from Donald Trump.

It may be overly simplistic on my part to attribute Trump’s victory to a decline of reading, but I do think it can be considered one of the deciding factors.

From print to digital

Some analysts of the decline in reading take a less gloomy view than I do. They claim that, although fewer people read newspapers, two-thirds or more of them still read books. This view seems to be ratified by the fact that more books are being published today than previously.

But are all these books actually being read?

“Not, in many cases, from cover to cover,” according to Mitchell Stephens, a journalism professor at New York University. Stephens cited a Gallup Poll that found many books were being bought to be consulted, skimmed, displayed to impress friends, or given as gifts, rather than to be thoroughly read. “Many more people say they are currently reading a book, but far fewer can say they have completed a book in the past week,” he observed.

Stephens’ op-ed and the poll it cites date back to 1990, but the detrimental reading trends identified at that time have undoubtedly intensified in recent years — and this despite the big upsurge in digital communications. Reading computer blogs, e-mails, Facebook gossip, and tweets does not in any way compensate for the decline in reading good books, either fact or fiction. Such hi-tech trivia does not provide the kind of informative reading that engages the mind, the spirit, or the imagination.

Granted, there are some excellent online journals and websites (such as The Independent) that provide a wide range of reliable information and analysis. But are most adult Internet users now confining their scans to slanted partisan blogs that reinforce their prejudices? And, even more worrisome, is the big switch from print to digital driving a concurrent switch from reading to “surfing” among youth? There’s ample reason to be concerned about these socially harmful developments.

Reading brief blogs, e-mails, Facebook gossip, and tweets does not in any way compensate for the decline in reading books.

For children, the addiction to TV, video games, texting, and other digital screens is alarming, especially for teenagers who now seem to have a smartphone permanently in hand.

Photo by Dallas Epperson / Flickr.
Photo by Dallas Epperson / Flickr.

As David Denby admitted in an essay in the New Yorker last year, millions of (pre-teen) kids have read the Harry Potter books, The Lord of the Rings, and other fantasy novels. But “when they become twelve or thirteen, they often stop reading seriously. The boys veer off into sports or computer games, the girls into friendship in all its wrenching mysteries and satisfactions of favor and exclusion,” he writes.

“Teenage time on screens…has increased to the point where it takes over many young lives altogether.”

Denby warns that, “if the rest of us give up on book-reading without a fight, we will regret it, even be ashamed as the culture hollows out. I will put it tendentiously: Could a country that had widely read Huckleberry Finn have taken Donald J. Trump seriously for a second? Twain’s readers will remember ‘the king’ and ‘the duke.’ They know what a bullying con artist sounds like.”

Then there is the matter of how someone who is not a committed reader in youth will fare in later years, when entering the work force. Jerry Diakiw, a former school board superintendent in Toronto, contends that “engaged reading is the best predictor of who goes to university – regardless of socioeconomic background and parental education – and the best predictor of career options and life incomes.”

He says that regularly reading books, whether fact or fiction, develops adults with better social skills and higher levels of self-esteem: “The converse, especially for boys who are not engaged readers and spend long hours playing video games, is higher unemployment, dependence on social welfare, anti-social behaviour, and increased crime rates.” 

Read to your kids

The greatest boon parents can give their children is to inculcate in them a love of reading at the earliest age, even before their first birthday. That means reading successively age-appropriate books to them until they become capable of reading on their own. My mother taught me, and my four siblings, to read at an elementary level before we started kindergarten, and I have no doubt that, without that early pre-school tutoring, we would not have been nearly as successful in our later lives. 

To read a story well is to follow it, to act it, to feel it, to become it – everything short of writing it, in fact. Reading is actual collaboration with the writer’s mind. –Ursula Le Guin

On its list of reasons why the reading habit is so important, an educational agency called ETL Learning asserts that reading expands vocabulary, increases the attention span, encourages a thirst for knowledge, prepares children for school, and instills a lifelong love of books.

Author Ursula Le Guin, who has also been pondering the lapse in reading, explains in her Harper’s essay the main difference between reading and watching television.

“Once you’ve pressed the TV button, the TV goes on, and on, and on, and all you have to do is sit and stare. But reading is active, an act of attention, of absorbed alertness. . . A book won’t move your eyes for you the way images on a screen can. It won’t move your mind unless you give it your mind, or your heart unless you put your heart into it. It won’t do the work for you. To read a story well is to follow it, to act it, to feel it, to become it – everything short of writing it, in fact. Reading is actual collaboration with the writer’s mind. No wonder not everybody is up to it.”

Keeping the mind active and involved through reading – inquiring, speculating, analyzing, inferring, projecting — is also believed by many scientists to guard against Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other forms of dementia.

The nun study

Dr. David Snowdon, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, was fascinated by the teaching nuns in the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who live much longer than average lives, many remaining active and alert into their 90s and quite a few living more than a century. They remain remarkably free from the degenerative diseases of senility. He visited and interviewed many of them, and was even given permission to dissect their brains after they finally died.

His book, published 16 years ago, is titled Aging with Grace: What the Nun Study teaches us about leading longer, healthier, and more meaningful lives.

One of his key findings was that attaining high linguistic ability in early childhood seems to protect against dementia. The nuns had all been taught to read – and to love reading – while still tots. One of Dr. Snowdon’s associates in the study, Dr. Susan Kemper, is a psycholinguist with specialized knowledge about the impact of aging on language skills. She measures a person’s “idea density” – the ability to comprehend, interpret, and process written language. The nuns’ cognitive abilities scored at a very high level.

After Dr. Snowdon’s book came out, he was asked by many readers to explain the significance of these findings. Young parents have asked, “What does this mean for our children?”

His and Dr. Kemper’s answer is succinct: “It underlines the importance of reading to them. It’s that simple. It’s the most important thing parents can do with their children.” Why? Because idea density depends on two essential learned skills: vocabulary and reading comprehension. “And the best way to enhance these skills in your children,” says Dr. Kemper, “is to start early in their lives to read to them.”

Ed Finn was editor at the CCPA Monitor for 20 years. Formerly, he was editor of the Western Star in Corner Brook, a reporter at The Montreal Gazette, and for 14 years wrote a column on labour relations for The Toronto Star. He also served for three decades as a communications officer for several labour organizations, including the Canadian Labour Congress and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

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