Read Like Your Life Depends Upon It, Because it Just Might

Sebastian Merde


Kevin Ruhland and MATTHEW B. KAISER

Everyday, I marvel at our students capacity to despise reading. I know, I know… I’m an English teacher, of course I care about reading. But that was not always so, as an ADHD high school student myself, I hated reading. I despised having to sit down and spend a perfectly pleasant afternoon inside reading a book just so I could hear my teacher tell me what I was supposed to get out of it and listen to the crazy things my classmates thought about it. However, even though I didn’t like reading, I still did it, and I still understood the value of it.


In the world we live in, literacy is a big problem, not just in our classrooms but globally. As teachers, we many never get a chance to fix global problems. We may never cure cancer, end world hunger, or stop wars, but we can impact literacy. We can make reading an important part of our lives and an important part of our students lives.


I know people are tired of hearing about this. Its hard to find the dedication to deal with adversity day in and day out. It’s hard to tackle a difficult problem. It’s hard to do the hard work. But that is what we have to do. We have to find a way to make kids that don’t like reading like reading. We have to find way to make kids who can’t read learn to read. We have to treat this like our lives depend upon it because if we don’t, we do our kids a grave injustice. The literacy problem is largely tied to both race and economics, there are numerous statistics to support such a claim. For example:

According to the literacy fast facts from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), literacy is defined as “using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one�s goals, and to develop one�s knowledge and potential.”

“One measure of literacy is the percentage of adults who perform at four achievement levels: Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate, and Proficient. In each type of literacy, 13 percent of adults were at or above Proficient (indicating they possess the skills necessary to perform complex and challenging literacy activities) in 2003. Twenty-two percent of adults were Below Basic (indicating they possess no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills) in quantitative literacy, compared with 14 percent in prose literacy and 12 percent in document literacy.”


Literacy statistics worldwide

  • According to UNICEF, “Nearly a billion people will enter the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names and two thirds of them are women.”


Literacy statistics and juvenile court

  • 85 percent of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate.
  • More than 60 percent of all prison inmates are functionally illiterate.
  • Penal institution records show that inmates have a 16% chance of returning to prison if they receive literacy help, as opposed to 70% who receive no help. This equates to taxpayer costs of $25,000 per year per inmate and nearly double that amount for juvenile offenders.
  • Illiteracy and crime are closely related. The Department of Justice states, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” Over 70% of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level.


Many of the USA ills are directly related to illiteracy. Just a few statistics:

  • Literacy is learned. Illiteracy is passed along by parents who cannot read or write.
  • One child in four grows up not knowing how to read.
  • 43% of adults at Level 1 literacy skills live in poverty compared to only 4% of those at Level 5
  • 3 out of 4 food stamp recipients perform in the lowest 2 literacy levels
  • 90% of welfare recipients are high school dropouts
  • 16 to 19 year old girls at the poverty level and below, with below average skills, are 6 times more likely to have out-of-wedlock children than their reading counterparts.
  • Low literary costs $73 million per year in terms of direct health care costs. A recent study by Pfizer put the cost much higher.


Teaching reading skills is one of the best ways to save an aging brain

“Carlson is running a study called the Experience Corps Trial, in which older men and women volunteer to teach reading skills to kindergarten through third graders in Baltimore city schools. Using brain-imaging studies, Carlson and her colleagues have shown that after just a few months, people who volunteer show beneficial changes in their brains similar to those that other research teams have seen with exercise.”


Back to what I was saying… What does our school serve but the economically and racially underserved. To not combat this would be paramount to allowing our national systematic oppression to persist, and personally, and ethically, I take issue with that. Why? Because I care… Why? Because its my job… Better yet, why do I need to provide a reason when I can look at my class and see 30 reasons every class period. For every teacher that says that we don’t have enough time, when are we going to teach content, or any other excuse no matter how seemingly trivial or meaningless, let me just say… If the kids can’t read, it doesn’t matter how much time you have to teach your content, it will not be understood. And please remember, every time you are asked to do something related to reading for this school, you are never being forced into reading anything in particular. In fact, reading is a great way to teach your content. Have students read about Algebra, have them read about Chemistry, have them read about Finances, have them read about History, have them read the back of a cereal box, just have them read. And then once they’re reading, we can get them to talk about reading, we can get them to use reading as a weapon to arm themselves against the future, we can get them to use reading as a means of combatting social prejudices and racism, and we can get them to use reading as a means of building that beautiful future world that we all hope to someday live in.


For More About Why Reading Matters, Consider this article From The Harvard Crimson:

At a dinner party last month, a biomedical engineer asked me a rude question. He was not trying to be rude. He was drunk. Informed that I am an English professor, he responded, “Why?” He explained that his mission in life is to save lives. Mine is to say clever things about dead writers. Prodded by his wife’s grimace, he backtracked a bit and reassured me that Shakespeare is “obviously important.” Praising Shakespeare is how the world apologizes for its lack of interest in literature. Those of us who have devoted our lives to literature are dogged by this perpetual questioning of the worth of our work.

We live in an Information Age. New technologies and insurgent media have democratized the dissemination of knowledge. Children type their names before they write them. We devour a daily buffet of words. The average American reads and writes more today than at any time in our history—even if it’s TMZ we read and emoticon-peppered e-mails we write. We are all authors now. Sarah Palin has just written a book. Texting while driving has become a national problem. Last week I passed a young couple holding hands. With their free hands, they were texting. Fifteen years ago, bored students stared out classroom windows at squirrels. The window has become a laptop, and the squirrel, Facebook. The problem today is not illiteracy. It is hyper-literacy. We have no time for literature.

Fiction sales have plummeted. Poetry has become a fetish. Parents are terrified their children will become playwrights; it means they will never move out. The exodus of undergraduates from the humanities to occupational majors—coupled with the devaluation of literature and art in our society—has driven certain humanist disciplines to the brink of extinction. From the early 1970s to the mid 1980s, the number of English majors in the United States dwindled from 64,000 to 34,000. Despite the fact that more students across the country are attending college than ever before, less than four percent of them in 2004 chose to major in English, a number that has declined each subsequent year. In this era of rapid thumb-typing, the act of reading literature feels metabolically unnatural. It forces our sprinting brains to slow to a crawl.

Over the last three decades, literary scholars have utterly failed literature. Our sales pitch has worn thin. To an increasing number of students, our claims that literature refines the mind, makes one a more interesting and intellectually supple person, sound pretentious, or worse, therapeutic. The Arnoldian notion that culture elevates us, makes us empathetic and sensitive, is just not true. Don’t believe me? You should hear English professors discuss each other’s work! Students want to be empowered by knowledge, not refined or made precious by it. The age of the snob has passed. There will always be a core constituency of sweet-tempered undergraduates who find literature intrinsically fascinating, just as there will always be devotees of Wagner, bonsai, and Lithuanian folk dances. We will dote on this shrinking brood, praise them for savoring Auden while their peers gorge on “Glee.” But let’s not shake our fists at the thumb-typers. It would be a mistake to circle the nerd wagons.

In truth, literature is perfectly positioned for a comeback. In a society comprised of compulsive writers and readers, of empty-calorie text, the study of artful language—of words that truly matter—is more necessary now than ever. If you cannot dance atop the tsunami of signifiers heading your way, it will crush you. Learn to breathe language, or else choke on it. If you cannot control it, it will control you. Your words will die on your lips; your thoughts will turn to dust. Taming unruly syllables—bending signification to suit your needs, understanding that everything is language, matrices of metaphor, of which you are a product—is a prerequisite for survival and success in the 21st century. Which will it be: the red pill or the blue one? No biomedical engineer could manufacture these pills.

What is literature, in the end, but the art of rendering uncanny one’s own language, of not taking words for granted, of watching language undulate in slow motion through space? Nietzsche understood this. The quotidian life of any language (“What’s up?” “Nice weather!” “LOL”) is naturally disenchanting. 99.99 percent of the words we speak show no trace of life. Clichés trickle from our zombie mouths. We speak a lot and say little. Literature re-enchants language; it fills its lungs with gasps. What are the pangs induced by good poetry but a visceral realization of having taken our friend language for granted, of having broken its heart? Literature teaches us to see the words we live with as though for the first time. Literature shakes us from our sleepwalker’s daze. It is like discovering that your roommate of many years is not only hot, but also has loved you this whole time. Study literature. Study it like your life depends upon it—because, in this wordy young century, it does.