Why Books Matter

In her Sunday Salon article this weekend, Rebecca at The Book Lady's Blog posted a link to a spectacular New York Times article on the importance book: The Medium is the Medium.

In it, op-ed columnist David Brooks cites studies that suggests that books improve student test scores, while internet access actually leads to lower math and reading scores. The first study involved over 800 "disadvantaged" students (they never explain what qualifies someone as disadvantaged) 12 books to take home for the summer for three summers. These students subsequently had higher test scores, particularly on reading tests (surprise, surprise?).

My favorite take-away from the article, besides the fact that books trump the internet in the world of making us smarter - duh - was this passage:
But there was one interesting observation made by a philanthropist who gives books to disadvantaged kids. It’s not the physical presence of the books that produces the biggest impact, she suggested. It’s the change in the way the students see themselves as they build a home library. They see themselves as readers, as members of a different group.
The point, then, is less content than medium. By giving students the beginnings of a home library, they left the world of the undereducated and started to think of themselves as readers; students using the internet are not part of any seemingly elite book-ish culture, but rather part of something that people the world around can access.

What is more, readers (in all their stereotypes) are thought of as focused, dedicated people, powering through page after page, devouring book after book. The internet, in its mere existence, encourages readers to get distracted, click around, leave one site for another (why do you think one of the metrics measured on most websites is length of visit?).

I'll admit I'd never thought of this concept before, but Brooks' article set something off in me. What qualifies someone as a "book person"? At what point do we - and do those around us - start thinking of us as book people? Where do we draw the line between reading our books, our precious libraries, and the vast, unending world of the internet? And is the world of the "book person" really so far distant from that of the casual reader or non-reader?

Personally, I believe I was born into my bookworm self. My father's house is lined with bookshelves, quite literally on every spare inch of wall on the first floor and master bedroom. My mother's house is lined with bookshelves in nearly every room, not to mention the teetering stacks of mid-read or to-read or to-gift piles of books scattered across the house. She also works in a bookstore. I, too, have inherited this obsessive book collecting gene; when I packed for my move I had 5 boxes of books and only 4 boxes of clothing. And that doesn't include the books stored in both parent's houses, or the books from my fiancé's apartment.

But neither of my siblings seem to have inherited this same gene; my brother doesn't read (either books or the internet... he's a movie/boating/anti-technology kinda hippie) and my sister reads the internet (while simultaneously listening to techno, watching television and having 3 AIM conversations. And no, I'm not exaggerating here).

So maybe it is a matter of a change in perception, both of oneself and of how other perceive us. Once I was established as a bookworm, maybe I grew into that role, and expanded it, made it my own. In doing so, I have left behind the world of the non-reader - I can no longer fathom what these people think when entering a bookstore (I think: WANT); I can't imagine how their eyes must glaze over when I go on a book tangent; and furthermore, I can no longer understand seeing the world around me without in some way relating what I see and what I learn to what I've seen or want to see in a book.


  1. Interesting post. I think bookishness is in my genes. When I was growing up, TV was limited and there were always books available in a bookcase in the hallway. My mom and my sister are both readers as well.

  2. I'd like to play devil's advocate and see more of the background on these studies and see, as you pointed out, who this disadvantaged kids are and his claims that the children become smarter because they see themselves as book people. Freakonomics looked at the same topic and suggested children in homes with a lot of books do better because a home with a lot of books puts a higher premium on education. They even point out the failed experiment to send all children in a school district a free book a month in an attempt to make the children smarter.

    I'm interested in the suggestion that once you identify with a role you grow into it. I would certainly call myself a book person and I grew up in a house filled with books but like you I have a sibling who still to this day would rather play video games or watch TV than read, though really he's the smarter one out of the two of us. Perhaps we each grew into the different roles we first chose and at this point I don't think there's any going back for either of us.

  3. Kathy - TV was limited for me, too, but my parents were more lax about it with my sister (there's an 8-year age gap there). Maybe that's why she's so much more into television than I am?

    Red - Good point - the article, though interesting, didn't go into too much detail on the evidence in the studies themselves, more the outcomes. I haven't read Freakonomics (yet!) but interesting that they tried a similar experiment and got different results...

  4. Interesting post, Kerry. As a teacher, I can speak to the term "disadvantaged"--this usually means students who have free or reduced lunch. Usually these are students living well below the poverty line (thing 12K or 15K annual income for a family of four). The topic Red mentioned is often referred to in education classes: school achievement can be predicted by the number of books in the household. As Red implies, the book-housing household has much behind it that cannot be created with books alone (I hope you know what I mean because I feel I'm not making sense!). What could create readers among low-income households would be early-childhood education for both children and parents (starting at age 3). If we did that (in a perfect world) we could really start to tackle the achievement gap. Being a reader is a gift that begins in childhood, and even if your siblings aren't readers today, they benefited from the bookish households in subtle ways, I believe. Thanks for a really thought-provoking post!

  5. This is a great post! And you're right that it's all about perception. I've met self-described "avid readers" who read five books a year, and others who read five hundred. I've always thought of myself as a reader and a member of the reading community; so glad to see the importance of that group membership being examined.

  6. Great, great post, and I'm looking forward to reading the article as well. I'm really interested in this idea as a reader, but also as an educator.

    I work with a population of students who could be considered "high risk"--for dropping out, many the first generation of college students in their families, etc. Many of them do not identify themselves as readers.

    I'm considering starting a book group at the college just for fun and choosing books that aren't terribly challenge but could be fun to talk about. The larger focus is to get students together in the name of community. I wonder, if we did this, how many students would take a chance, and by taking the chance, how many might begin to see themselves as part of a larger community--both the college community and maybe even the reading community.

    We'll see if I grow the guts and the time to start this project. I really want to!

  7. Lisa - Thanks for clarifying the "disadvantaged" bit. I think I see your point - that bookish households have more than just books, but a different socio-economic class, mentality towards learning and education, etc? Good point on the early-childhood education; I do think learning (and a love for reading) starts at a very, very early age. At least I know it did for me!

    Rebecca - Thanks again for posting the link to the original NYT article; clearly, it really got me thinking. I love being a part of the reading community, and understanding how/why people identify themselves with that group (or not, as the case may be - I know one person who reads about 50 books/year and doesn't consider herself a "book person")

    Andi - Go for it! It sounds like a wonderful idea, and a chance to expand reading outside the world of assigned literature and the like. I'd love to hear how it goes if you ever do find the time for such a massive undertaking! Curious - any thoughts on what books you might choose?


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