Does reading books make us better at being people?

Spoiler alert: I have an opinion about this. Also, I will probably write more about this later, but I have to go tutor some rich kids in math. Incidentally, teaching math doesn’t fill my heart with as much joy as talking about books and themes and critical thinking with kids. Go figure. [I warned you there would be bad puns.]

Last fall, I led a series of workshops around the theme “Building a Culture of Literacy” with about 120 or so of my co-workers. Actually,  it was three separate hour-long sessions, so the conversation varied between them. I started each session by having everyone walk around the room to write on chart paper, answering questions such as “What was your favorite book when you were 11?”; “Who was your favorite character in elementary school?”; and “What book(s) are you reading now?” This was early in the school year, so most of my co-workers were just starting to realize how difficult it is to teach reading comprehension when students are a few grade levels behind. (More on public education to come in other posts.)

The workshop was not really meant to address tutoring strategies, but to think about what  a culture of literacy looks like, so I started by asking people in the room whether they had enjoyed reading as kids, and for those who hadn’t, why they didn’t. We talked about turning points, the reasons they struggled as readers, and what their attitudes are toward books now. In the third session, instead of rehashing challenges in the classroom and how different corps members were addressing those issues across schools, I decided to get all Socratic on their asses shift the conversation to thinking about whether literacy is important.

“Why should our student read? Why is being literate important? Is there empirical value to literacy?”

Silence. We all thought for a moment, then started talking about reasons being literate is important, starting at somewhat practical reasons: “Students need reading comprehension skills to do well in school, especially when they transition to high school” and “You need to be able to read to function in our society.”

As we kept discussing, people brought up other good that reading produces: you can see that other people are going through the same problems as you; you see into other worlds; you start asking questions you hadn’t thought of before; you learn to empathize with people who are different from you.

The reasons shifted from intrapersonal to interpersonal — as you read, we decided, you build your critical thinking skills and sense of wonder (hopefully), but you also learn to empathize with characters and see the world through other people’s eyes.

The last Harry Potter movie comes out Friday, which is something of an end of an era. (Especially for people my age, who were 11 when “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was published — it’s more ours than yours!) Chloe, one of my tutoring students, wasn’t sure if she would get to go to a midnight screening, and she hoped no one would tell her the ending.

“Haven’t you read any of the books?” I asked.

“No, reading’s for nerds,” she replied.

Right, says the girl who’s spending about 30 hours a week over the summer to study for a math placement test so she can jump a grade level at school. Liking Harry Potter — whether in book or movie form — is inherently a nerdy thing. Wizards, magic, nerd heroes (Hermione and Neville, anyone?), quidditch, references to Latin? Nerd manna.

And I truly believe the Harry Potter series has done for reading, and subsequently for moral decision making slash ability to empathize, what books have been doing for people for centuries — and before that, storytelling. I will save my commentary on literate Puritan culture (as inspired by Sarah Vowell’s ‘The Wordy Shipmates” and my AP US History teacher) for another post. Actually, I have to go to work, so I’ll also save my analysis of the books that influenced me for another post.

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