Johnny Can’t be Bothered Reading

When I was growing up, the entrance to our city library was faced by an enormous monumental wall emblazoned with Thomas Carlyle’s great epigram: “All that mankind has done, thought, gained, or been is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books”. From the earliest age, that saying impressed me deeply. Even though the stodgy old library has been demolished and rebuilt as a futuristic “death star”, I’m pleased to see that the monument remains, hopefully to inspire future generations of bibliophiles.

Sadly, the evidence suggests that it has its work cut out.

To gain admittance to college in the 17th century, students had to be able to read and translate various Latin authors on sight. 100 years ago, students were required to have read various classical works before being admitted.

Today, however, many American students are being admitted to colleges without ever having read a book from start to finish. They are part of a cohort of students known as “book virgins.”

Typically, standards are being lowered to pander to students, rather than demanding better.

The National Association of Scholars (NAS)… offers a detailed assessment of the books that colleges across America recommend to their students before they begin classes in the fall.

The reading level of these books is oftentimes very low, meant to cater to the group of students who are “book virgins”… [who] “have to be wooed with simple, unchallenging works.”

The reading level of these books is oftentimes very low, meant to cater to the group of students who are “book virgins”… [who] “have to be wooed with simple, unchallenging works.”

According to NAS’ David Randall—who drew upon NEA and Pew statistics—about 4 million, which represents about 20% of the entering freshmen class. Sadly, these students have discovered that they can receive adequate, and even good, grades in high school without ever reading a page of assigned texts.

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I suspect that much of this is not simply “anti-intellectualism”. After all, as the astonishing popularity of the likes of Jordan Peterson, Gad Saad, Steven Pinker and others has shown, there is an enormous public appetite for challenging intellectual content. If an erudite Canadian scholar’s hour-long lectures on the psychological significance of Biblical stories are able to attract millions of views, clearly there is a hunger for difficult content.

I would argue that the real problem is the post-modernist attack on books and the Enlightenment tradition which is inimical to reading. Identity politics apparatchiks decry reading and books as tools of “white supremacy”. According to modern educational theory, a Hollywood movie or a glossy magazine is considered every bit as valid a “text” as Shakespeare. Students can complete secondary school English without ever reading a book. But, while Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is a decent enough adaptation, which at least stays faithful to Shakespeare’s words, watching a movie simply does engage and challenge the mind like reading a book.

To quote another book-to-screen adaptation, a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.

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