In a 2005 speech to the American Library Association, then-senator Obama described his view of the importance of literacy: “In this new economy, teaching our kids just enough so that they can get through Dick and Jane isn’t going to cut it↲,” he said. “The kind of literacy necessary for 21st-century employment requires detailed understanding and complex comprehension.” Education secretary Arne Duncan’s response to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress earlier this week reinforced a pragmatic approach to literacy: “If America’s students are to remain competitive in a knowledge-based economy, our public schools must greatly accelerate the rate of progress of the last four years and do more to narrow↲ America’s large achievement gaps↲. It is an urgent moral and economic imperative that our schools do a better job of preparing students for today’s globally-competitive world.”
Reading is indeed crucial to success in school and in careers. But we worry that discussions of reading, especially public policy discussions, focus almost exclusively on its utilitarian value. What’s missing is the pleasure readers derive from the reading they do.
Our new research on the nature and variety of the pleasure avid adolescent readers take from their out-of-school reading ( Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want—and Why We Should Let Them ) demonstrates that pleasure is not incidental to reading—it’s essential. Indeed, we found that the young people with whom we worked spoke of their reading pleasure with remarkable sophistication—and their pleasure supported the intense and high-level engagement with texts that schools seek to foster↲.
In our study of the out-of-school reading lives of 14 eighth graders who were avid readers of texts often marginalized in schools (romances, vampire stories, horror stories, dystopian novels, and fantasy), we strove to understand the nature and variety of reading pleasure. We found that our participants were remarkably articulate about why they read what they read. Here’s what they taught us.
Well, I learn about myself through books when I imagine myself in the different situations. I’m pretty sure other people do that, too. And then I really can think about what would I really do. Would I run and hide or would I, you know, stand up and take it↲? And then you say well I like to think that I would stay, but maybe I really would run away and the next time you’ve got that fight or flight thing going on, you kinda• think back to which one you want to be doing. You can sort of help yourself change in that way, and when you really admire a character in a book who’s really brave• and stuff, you kind of can idolize them and become more like them. So it’s not really learning about yourself, it’s learning about what you could be.
I’m part of a cultural club that grew up with HP. It gave me a sense of belonging. I loved wondering what I thought was going to happen. Talking to my friends about that. Aligning myself with characters. Waiting so impatiently for the next book. No other group of kids will have that experience again. It kind of marks you as when you grew up and bonds you with other people your age.