Sunday, June 11, 2006


At one of the places I work I teach a very small, very high level non-credit course. It is fun, because we can actually talk about things. Every week I get the students to choose a topic for next week, and I look for materials about it, and we go from there.

Last week one of the guys wanted to talk about the difference between people who plan carefully and those who act on impulse. He had the idea from his recent reading that the most successful people in life were those who had a goal, and worked hard to achieve it. He wanted to know which kind of person I was. Did I have long-term goals?

I had to think about this. He had just made it sound like people without goals are doomed to be pathetic failures, and I didn't want to admit that long-term goals are not my forte. In the end I told him that my goal in life was to be surprised a lot, and that so far I have been very, very successful. I never know what is going to happen next, or what I will do.

This discussion eventually segued onto the topic of reading. I asked the same guy how much reading he did. He told me that he didn't read much, not like a friend he has who reads one or two books a day. He read only two or three books a week, and recently he had been reading a lot of biographies. He wanted to know what I thought about this. Was it better to read slowly and carefully, or to read fast and more?

I told him I thought it depended on the type of book you were reading. We talked about that a bit, then I asked the other three students (there were only four) how much reading they did. All three of them said that they didn't read books at all. Ever. They didn't seem ashamed to admit this, even though they are all university students in their third or fourth years. They don't even read textbooks. I asked. They said they didn't need to, to pass their courses, and since they found reading hard work and didn't enjoy it, what was the point?

Then one of them looked thoughtful.

"Do you think reading is good for anything?" he asked. "Do you think people should read?"

He really wanted to know.

How do you answer questions like that?

I told a colleague about this on the way home, and she told me that she had a Japanese friend with a PhD who was puzzled by the number of books my friend had in her house.

"Do you read them all?" the woman asked when she saw them.

My friend said she did.

"Why?" asked the PhD.

It was a great mystery to her that anybody would read when they didn't have to. She didn't read, not even in her own field. She hated reading.

I know most of my students don't like reading, but it's a bit depressing to find out that their professors don't read either.

How would you answer those questions? Why do you read? What is reading good for? Do you think people should read?


kenju said...

It is hard for me to believe that a professor doesn't read! How did she get to be a professor??!! I read for enjoyment, entertainment, education, to learn about something not in my daily experience and to broaden my horizons. I have hundreds of books and I have read 99% of them. Of course people should read!

Alec Muffett said...

Hi, I got here via

"Do you think reading is good for anything?" he asked. "Do you
think people should read?" He really wanted to know. How do you
answer questions like that?

Frankly I wouldn't find it hard to answer a question like that - this
is not meant as a criticism of you, but rather I welcome anyone who
asks more fundamental questions about why we do things. People should
be called upon to account for anything requiring significant effort
(climbing a mountain, flying to the moon, declaring war on another
country) and with such an important topic -- transfer of knowledge and
expansion of viewpoint, one of the tools that makes us human -- it
surely should not be hard to synthesise and expound a compelling case.

I was mildly surprised when a colleague visited my house and commented
upon the 7'x4' bookcase in the downstairs utility room, packed to the
gills; "wow, you have so many books... ah, that's why you know so
much." I grinned sheepishly and told him he'd probably prefer the
other half of my library in the bookcase upstairs.

He does not possess many books, however he is dyslexic and tends to
fight his way through technical documentation on a need-to-read basis,
which is OK. He's still a good person, an upstanding member of
society, and one of the best computer grid architecture people I know.

It's a pleasure to work with him.
It's just not necessary for him to read many books.

I've been through a bad patch myself, which I ascribe to "reality" -
work, relationships - impinging in life in a way I did not know how to
manage, cutting into my personal time and tearing me away from my
teenage three-books-a-week habit. Something - my work, my
environment, my lifestyle - caused me to lose the ability to focus.

It got/gets so bad that now when faced with some blank management or
technical prose, I get my iMac to read it to me aloud because
otherwise I can't concentrate on the meaning of the text.

Very Dilbertesque.

But I could have stopped, gotten recipes via the web rather than
Elizabeth David, bought Harry Potter audiobooks, and gotten my news
from ther TV rather than The Economist. I don't think it would have
made me particularly *less* of a person. Perhaps I would just be
reducing my rate of "inflow".

Instead I began to book-out time to reading. To prioritise it.
My habit is returning, albeit slowly.

However I knew the value of doing so. Some people need it spelling
out, and we shouldn't shy away from that.

She Weevil said...

Love the new look! I must admit to finding it very difficult to read anymore. I read so voraciously for the first half of my life and then did a Eng Lit degree and had to read so much stuff I would chose not to that at the end of that I found it almost impossible to read anything for about three years.

I now find that I have very little time for myself and certainly not the kind of time to indulge the onanistic experience reading once was for me.

Of course, I do encourage my children to read and like Alec says we have a house full to the gunwhales with books.

Badaunt said...

Kenju: I guess she read when she was becoming a professor, but once you have a professorial job everything after that seems to happen by seniority. You just stay in the job and get promoted. This is supposed to be changing, but I haven't seen much evidence of it.

Alec: Well, I could have answered the question, but in fact I passed it on to the reading student to answer, since it is supposed to be a language class and the main point is for the students to speak. He answered it very well, and that led to a discussion about how one develops critical thinking skills (which are not taught here). (And truthfully, I was afraid to answer the question myself because if I started I might not be able to stop, and the class is not supposed to be a lecture!)

I think what struck me, come to think of it, was that the idea that reading might be valuable seemed to be an entirely new one to the (fourth year) student who asked the question. I have known for a long time that my students don't read, but something about their response to the question has always puzzled me, and this incident pointed at what it was. It is as if nobody even considers reading as a normal thing for a student to do, let alone a valuable thing. When two or three students admit to having read a book in the last six months in a class of 30 or so, everybody looks at them as if they have suddenly sprouted an extra head. The students who read are the weird ones. It's not so much that they don't know WHY reading could be valuable, it's that they haven't even heard the idea THAT reading could be valuable. I could be wrong, but the guy asking the question asked it like it was a new idea he'd just thought of, on his own, prompted by the discussion we were having.

And that strikes me as odd in a university, even knowing what I know about Japanese universities. It does explain the reactions I get to the question, though. They don't understand why I'm even asking, let alone feel any need to justify a negative response.

She Weevil: I think that even the keenest reader goes through dry spells, and of course there are extended periods when reading is less valuable than real life experience. But at least you have experienced the value of reading, and know that it is there for you to take up at any time. My students don't even seem to be aware of the worlds that lie between the covers of books.

I'm glad you like the new look - I was a little unsure about those scruffy crows at first, but they're growing on me. And I'm pleased with the three-column layout. It looks cleaner, somehow. Or maybe I was just sick of the old (lack of) design.

Geoff Arnold said...

"When two or three students admit to having read a book in the last six months in a class of 30 or so, everybody looks at them as if they have suddenly sprouted an extra head."
Ah... that explains the weird looks that I got when, as an undergraduate in England in 1970, majoring in CS, I decided to devote one term to reading all of Thomas Hardy's novels, in order.

Wiccachicky said...

I find that I read in spurts. I love to read, but often my reading time for the day is taken up reading (usually horrific) student papers, thus, the time I have to actually read things I WANT to read is diminished. I find that often with academic work, I will simply skim (because often the abstract tells you everything you REALLY need to know about a particular piece of research) but when I read novels and such I tend to read everything, albeit quite quickly.

For me the purpose of reading is to recharge my brain. I turn to books when I feel like I am out of things I want to say or I want to write.

Fun topic to think about!!

kenju said...

I guess what I meant was how could anyone not read for the sheer joy of it? For the "aha" moment, for the instances of shared insights and those that make us think and bring us joy and teach us new things?

A week, month or year without a book is unthinkable to me. Indeed, a DAY without reading is unthinkable!

Carrie said...

I can't imagine a professor not liking to read and openly admitting it. Crazy. My grandma will proudly tell anyone she meets that she hasn't read a book since she graduated high school in the 1930s. It's easy to see that she has missed out on all books have to offer. She has no imagination and can't understand that not all people think exactly the way she thinks. I don't think that is soley because she doesn't read, but I do think reading really helps people step outside the box and consider other viewpoints.

I love reading. I love being transported to places I'll never visit. I love "meeting" people I can relate to without leaving the comfort of my own home. I love reading about ideas that I never would have considered on my own. I really do belive reading plays a fundamental part in exposing people to new ideas and that is one of the reasons it is so important. Many books also highlight common problems and point out that people aren't alone in this world.

Honeybee said...

I'm just theorizing here, and I've never been to Japan myself, but do you think it could be related to how high-tech their society is? Status is based partly on who has the newest and best gadgets to some degree, yes? Old fashioned books made out of paper seem anathema to that mode of thinking. Why bother reading when you can watch anime on your phone?

I love the site redesign!

Fuzzball said...

I can't imagine not reading. When I moved last week I packed up three large boxes of books that I'm giving away and it killed me to do it. Forgive the cheesiness, but my books are my friends. I read and re-read them all the time. I'll take a book over a movie ANY day, because when I'm reading I can imagine everything for myself instead of watching someone ELSE's vision. Does that make sense?

Ah well. Me love books long time. ;)

Robert said...

I don't think it's even a Japanese issue. Some of my colleagues--in the ENGLISH department--don't read anything outside of what they have students read. They might read one or two trash novels on the beach in the summer, and that's it. It's appalling.

Faerunner said...

Reading is what opened my world. Especially for people who don't get out a lot, reading can be very educational, not to mention it's a great help in teaching spelling and grammar.

(Basically, ditto what everyone else has said). :)

photostream said...

Coming to this discussion a bit late.....but metastases just linked you. Anyway, another perspective: I don't read for pleasure. I read to find things out. This means that I read often (in comparison to many people that I know) but I find the actual reading part of reading quite a chore. Reading is just something that I have to do to learn stuff.

Now, if the question had been about creating/looking at pictures.....

Mike said...

I saw a link to this posting on

I am a long-time voracious reader, whose house is jammed full of books. I have, however, noticed a significant change in my reading habits as I've gotten older. I have less patience with bad books. I've even been known to leave some books unfinished! I get half-way through, then cheat and look at the ending to see if anything vaguely interesting has happened in between. If the ending is totally predictable, and that's all too common, I just leave it. The good stuff, I read straight through, no peaking, often in one or two sittings.

One consequence is that I read less fiction and more non-fiction of all sorts.

The other thing I've noticed is that my eyes are getting worse, so when I'm at the gym or on a plane I listen to taped lectures, audio books, or podcasts instead of reading. It's slower, but my eyes don't start hurting.

I'm just barely getting to the point where I don't feel guilty leaving a book half-read... Oh, Wait... I guess I'm not quite there yet.

Why do I read? My mind itches and the books are scratchy.

Anonymous said...

I think reading is very important for everybody. And all we have to read at least the newspaper. Je,je... As teachers or proffessor we have a great responsibility ro read. If we don't, how we'll help students?

AGUSTIN said...

I think reading is so important in education that, even achieve a degree in the lack of reading seens really hard to do. in my experience, I have seen that good readers get close into intelectual environments, not the other way round.

hector said...

in the text obove about reading we find some opinions of persons where say that had read several books, but other academics, they have not read books because it is not important for them read, because its course will not need it.
I think that reading is fundamental to intellectual growth of each person, but is not something that should be done by compulsion, but voluntarily.

HECTOR said...

in the text obove about reading we find some opinions of persons saying that had read several books, but other academics, they have not read books because it is not important for them to read, because its course they won`t need it in theur course.
I think that reading is fundamental to intellectual growth of each person, but it`s not something that should be done by obligation, but voluntarily.

nelsonmotato said...

the reading it is important, allows us to have a better consciouness and intellectual growing and not just that. we will be better human beings