Education Opinion

Why Reading Books Really Matters

By Donalyn Miller — September 14, 2008 3 min read
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My oldest daughter stuck a lapel pin into the bulletin board over her desk which reads, “School prepares you for life, which also sucks.” Cringe worthy, I know, but I imagine this sentiment is one that is commonly felt by many schoolchildren. No matter what we do to make school instruction engaging for kids, sometimes school is just school—an endless hamster wheel of assignments meant to prepare students for life as workers and contributors to society.

The past decade or so of standardized reading tests and cookie-cutter curriculum has done little to change students’ negative views towards school, and in my opinion, reading. Traditional reading instruction dissects literature into components for close scrutiny like a science experiment. No author writes so that readers can tear apart their words and look at the insides; they write books to explore the vast depths of human experience and knowledge.

Teaching reading like a science marginalizes writing as an art form and denies readers the opportunity to discover what reading is meant to accomplish. I doubt that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlett Letter so that generations of students could pick up a lesson or three on symbolism, or that Gary Paulsen wrote Hatchet so his readers would build dioramas of their favorite scenes. If reading is nothing more than a checklist of skills and strategies to master, what do we need books for? Let’s crank out a few hundred worksheets on the copier and call it a day. In too many classrooms, that is exactly what happens.

Hawthorne’s book is still relevant not for its teaching points, but because the shame, betrayal, and confines of society’s norms he explores still impact us. Paulsen’s book is more than a treasure trove of fun camping lessons; it is worth reading because it reminds us that we are capable of great courage and resourcefulness, even teenage boys.

It seems that while we fight to teach kids the skills they need to live, we have sacrificed those elements that make it worth living. The bland sameness of our days spent running, striving, and proving ourselves leaves little room for examining why life and our place in the world are remarkable gifts.

Where else but in our books and art can we express the beauty of the human spirit? How do we impart the wisdom of the centuries to our children? What lifts us up and inspires us to be more than the sum of our days? Life on the wheel provides few opportunities to celebrate the triumph and trials of our own humanity, but by reading books we can taste it for a time.

We read because we are lost and we are searching for home. We read because we feel isolated and need companions. We read because our lives have too little magic, wonder, heroism, laughter, or justice. We read because we need to believe in the basic decency of our fellows and some days we just can’t see it. We read because we need to learn from the mistakes of others. We read because we need hope that things will get better, true love exists, good can vanquish evil, and we do not have to be torn apart by our own failings.

This is why I must get my students to read. I want to hand them a map for the journey they must travel. I want them to realize that the measure of their worth is more than a paycheck stub. I want them to feel that life is not an endless march of drudgery and obligations; life is a quest for meaning— a search for who we are, why we are here, and what we offer each other. I want to place all of Mankind’s potential at their feet.

This is why reading books really matters. Reading reveals a better us and challenges us to reach for it.

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.