“Reading books requires you to form concepts, to train your mind to relationships…. A book is a large intellectual construction; you can’t hold it all in mind easily or at once. You have to struggle mentally to internalize it…. Information is not knowledge.”
~Henry Kissinger

Many educators and parents may be wondering, in light of everything that is happening in the world, how do I better prepare students with the mental flexibility, fortitude, and ferociousness to seek out perspectives, critically think, and act with a conscience and integrity?

Taking a page from my friend, Courtney Cook, a former English teacher and author of “Survival by Book,” the written word has always had tremendous power in how a generation evolves and how it is defined. We often think of books as being an elitist endeavor of sitting in an Ivory Tower. Indeed, reading is elitist. It requires one to be literate, which requires a level of education, which requires resources and funding and prioritization of education.

According to UNESCO, while literacy rates have risen, there are still 773 million adults who cannot read, the majority of whom are women. In the U.S., 20% of kindergarteners begin their schooling already two to three years behind their grade level. Only 37% of high school students graduate at or above their grade reading levels. Eighty percent of children from economically disadvantaged communities see a drop in reading skills over the summers (and perhaps during quarantines?) because of lack of access to books. Literacy is connected to unemployment and health risks, not to mention the vulnerability to curated information and data. Organizations such as Reading is Fundamental have for decades sounded the alarm on this crisis – illiteracy and low literacy rates are not just issues of the 80s that have been solved.

Moreover, in the rapidly changing landscape where AI and movies replace books, where learning to write and read is encouraged on an iPad (if one has access to one) rather than with pen, paper, and a dog-eared book, and where reading is a quick-fix information feed, literacy may be staying more at the surface level. Can you read this word? Great, check. Carry on.

For those of us lucky enough to know how to read, reading Buzzfeed or whatever news source doesn’t necessarily require active thinking or engagement. It’s a passive act that doesn’t always incite us to question the author or even question who is doing the writing. After all, we are only starting to acknowledge that what is written is already curated. That written history only tells a sliver of what really happened.

Are we overlooking the active part of reading that is required if we are to build our capacity for independent thinking, cultural creation, imagination, empathy, and action for the betterment – or detriment – of society? It’s what Adam Garfinkle writes about “deep literacy,” the engagement of the text, the nurturing for abstract thinking, and the empowering of divergent and independent thought. He writes:

“Deep reading has in large part informed our development as humans, in ways both physiological and cultural. And it is what ultimately allowed Americans to become “We the People,” capable of self-government. If we are losing the capacity for deep reading, we must also be prepared to lose other, perhaps even more precious parts of what deep reading has helped to build.”

To ensure that we don’t lose deep literacy, we must prioritize literacy – and not just reading the back of cereal boxes, but active engagement with the written word and active investigation of words written by those not always in the “mainstream.” One way is to support organizations like Reading is Fundamental. Another is to reprioritize reading – and not just reading to take a standardized test. Another is volunteering to mentor young readers. Another is to support local public libraries.

Before the global pandemic, many public libraries were already struggling. With e-books and audiobooks, the decline of Americans visiting libraries seemed to suggest that they are expendable. Yet with their closures during the pandemic, it is increasingly more evident how much of a lifeline they provide for many communities – from being a resource for non-book supplies, to a social space, to access to the internet. For example, while our local library has been shut down, they have maintained a designated parking area and a tent for anyone who needs the internet for things like online schooling, job applications, etc.

Libraries make accessible books. Books are not just hideaways in a world of words, but active worlds where when we are encouraged to sit and wrestle with them. They inform us not about what to think, but as Margaret Meads says, how to think.

These might date me, and by no means is this comprehensive list, but here are some books that required me to noodle as a teen – and still stay in top of mind for me:

  • Animal Farm by George Orwell: equality, community, society, government, responsibility
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: bureaucracy, power, faith, loyalty, duty, logic, language
  • 1984 by George Orwell: totalitarianism, morality, power, psychology, control
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: political domination, complacency, oppression,
  • Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison: racism, reconnection with past, self-worth, freedom
  • Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver: sustainability, ecology, economic livelihood, belonging
  • The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff: intuition, simplicity, happiness, wisdom
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: morality, social inequality, racism, human behavior
  • Night by Elie Wiesel: faith, good & evil, silence
  • Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston: family, identity, racism, control, freedom
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: pain, alienation, authenticity
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: power, language, silence, freedom

Words are powerful – they may allow us to strategize and act with blind faith or with open eyes. How might we encourage active engagement with words for positive impact?

  • Learn to read

Don’t assume the literacy is a given or a non-issue in 2021. It still very much is. If you know how to read, help someone else to learn. Donate old books for libraries and community centers.

  • Seek books on other people’s shelves

It’s easy to get into a certain genre or type of book that reaffirms our own way of thinking about the world. Try something else that is not “your usual type” of book. See what insights you might gain.

  • Sit and talk about them

Don’t just read for the sake of “I finished.” Sit and noodle over them. Grapple with them. Talk to someone else about them. Revisit them.

Reading is more than a bare necessity. It is fundamental to our capacity for free and critical thinking, and for thoughtful action to serve those around us.