Is Literacy and Reading Inherently Valuable?

When we talk about books, we often talk about them through a lens of Books Are Good. And I don’t just mean as book bloggers. As an educator and librarian this is obviously something that is always going around. But society in general seems to hold reading in high esteem.

This is especially true in comparison to other media. Books good, TV bad. Video games even worse. Candy Crush make you a less good human being, books make you a better human being!

My friends, family, and co-workers speak to me with admiration (and often envy) about my good reading habits. My husband is starting a New Year’s Resolution to read a book every month, in part so we have something to do together, but mostly because he thinks it is a Good thing to do.

But is reading inherently valuable? Does reading make us better? Are books superior to other media?

Obviously this is a loaded question. As a book blogger speaking to other book bloggers, I know that we value books more than we value other forms of media. As an educator and librarian, I know the value being a proficient reader brings to kids throughout their education, and the advantages that it gives them later in life. And one of the only ways for kids to become proficient readers is to spend time (especially time outside of school) reading.

But I don’t know that I believe reading is inherently a valuable use of one’s time, especially in comparison to other media.

I want to challenge the notion that books are somehow Better Than movies, video games, comics, sports, music, or whatever. There is nothing inherent in the process of reading a book that is universally better than the process of watching YouTube. Yes, reading books can make you a better person, can increase your awareness of the world, your compassion to other people, and so on. BUT SO CAN EVERY OTHER FORM OF MEDIA. Sure, binging television can turn pretty mindless, but so can reading YA paranormal romance.

In my opinion, our general good opinion of reading is either derived from the idea that it makes us either smarter, more cultured, or both. But film, music, television, they all contribute equally, if not more, to our culture. They also have the power to teach and inspire, to make the world a better place. I find the notion that books, visual art, and classical music are the only real forms of art to be elitist and misplaced. All media is art, though some may be better (or more artistic!) than others.

In addition, I don’t know that I would equate being a “good reader” with being “intelligent”. Placing aside the theory of multiple intelligences and the rejection of the traditional understanding of intelligence, being literate does not make you able to think logically or think for yourself. Period.

Obviously there’s some nuance here. There is growing research about the impact screens have on our brains that should impact the amount of time we choose to spend consuming screen-based media. For children, reading as a pastime is more developmentally important than television as a pastime. But on the other hand, video games and board games teach an equally valuable set of skills in the form of problem solving and fine motor skills.

Mostly, I want to reject the feelings of superiority bookish people often hold when comparing themselves to people with other hobbies, such as sports and video games. Whatever you choose to do in your personal time you do because you enjoy it, not because it is Good. And every hobby has something valuable to offer, even if it isn’t literacy,

41 thoughts on “Is Literacy and Reading Inherently Valuable?

  1. I think you touched on pretty much everything I’d say about this topic!

    I do think there’s good research that reading itself is good for the brain and even things like developing empathy. But a lot of times people mention “gaining knowledge” as the main benefit of reading, and of course you can learn things from a documentary, podcast, etc. You can also learn to analyze film or thing about character motivations in TV shows, if that’s something people care about.

    But I think people equate reading a lot with reading well. I’m probably going to come off as a snob here, but I’ve seen many book bloggers (that is, people who read a lot and love reading and, theoretically, should be some of society’s best readers because of that) completely misread everything from blog posts to actual books. People will (ostensibly) read a blog post I write, then write a comment that says, “I completely agree [with something the blog post doesn’t actually even say]!” I’ve seen people write reviews of books and say things like, “It’s BS that this has the lesson that introversion is bad” when the moral of the book is actually that introversion is not bad and even though other characters were implying that the protagonist should be extroverted, the protagonist learns it’s ok and they don’t have to change. Now, I’m sure many people are skimming and completely misreading things because….they’re not actually reading them. But I’ve seen this in so many contexts (including when I was teaching and college students couldn’t tell me what the main argument of a straightforward news article is) that….I really can’t say that reading (or reading a lot) makes you smart.

    I know people hate this, but some books are more complex than others. I LOVE reading YA, but can we admit that often it’s not just as complex as reading Shakespeare? Even the study about reading increasing empathy basically concluded that that occurs only if you read certain types of books. Basically like Jane Eyre.

    I’m a big fan of reading, but it’s possible to read thoughtfully and analytically and it’s possible to read mindlessly and just consume the plot of story for entertainment, just as it’s possible to analyze a film thoughtfully or just kind of watch it go by. Entertainment is valuable, too, of course, but the fact that someone reads 50 books a year simply does not necessarily mean they are smarter than someone else or even necessarily “better” at reading comprehension.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. YES YES YES EXACTLY. Wow, you said that way better than I did, lol.

      I’m going to go out on a limb here and even say that *most* of the bloggers/bookstagramers I interact with are doing any thoughtful or analytical reading. Which, again, I want to stress there is nothing wrong with, reading should be fun!, but there’s no reason to feel so superior to everyone because you’re reading 200 romance novels every year. It’s also why I’m with you on encouraging people to read the classics, because I think that you *have* to take more thought and care when reading them.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I saw some educators mention then in the whole classics debacle on Twitter: that, yes, Shakespeare is difficult to read and it’s one of the reasons they teach it (or other books where just reading the book on a sentence level is difficult). YA books may talk about tough topics, but the prose isn’t exactly hard to parse, so you don’t need to teach students how to do it. (And reading “hard” prose isn’t just good for reading classics; it’s good for reading things like science journals!)

        Also, I would personally argue that YA books tend to spell out the moral of whatever tough topics they’re bringing up. There’s the person who says something bad, the character who pontificates on why it is bad, and the punishment for the bad person. (And readers riot if it’s not this directly explained to the reader.) Classics raise tough topics but are more likely to let readers interpret them.

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        1. I agree, I think there is great value in teaching somebody to read something a little higher than their normal “reading level”. I don’t think *everything* kids read in school needs to be something they have to be instructed through, but I think challenging yourself is how you grow. That can be challenging yourself by reading from a different perspective (a la THUG), but it could also be a challenging style of prose, or poetry, or whatever. I think this idea that something that is “hard” or “boring” isn’t worth reading is a very 21st century instant-gratification petulant-teen idea.

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  2. I think books are better than other sorts of entertainment. While anything can make you think and learn , visually reading the words is important because it increases our language skills, exposes us to more words, and does broaden our horizons. I think after awhile looking at a screen is numbing. We stare at it. We don’t pay attention really…we aren’t engaged. In reading you must be engaged- there’s no option. Great topic!!

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      1. Agreed. But I think the actual exercise of reading words off a page is engaging the mind…it forces you to decipher letters and language, firm visual pictures and leave some things to the imagination. I also think audible books are a joke. And don’t consider that reading

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        1. I liked listening to audio books back when I had a commute. While I certainly prefer actual reading, I think audio books are a nice way to get your books when your eyes have to be engaged elsewhere. I especially enjoyed them for non-fiction, which to me wasn’t all that different from listening to the news or a podcast.

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          1. I think audible books fall into the same category as movies, tv, etc. that’s where I’m a snob…These methods are fine and there is absolutely nothing wrong with using them, but I consider them entertainment. But this was a really thought provoking question and I’m going to overthink it and write about it eventually

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  3. I agree with. Every form of art teacher us something depending on what we choose to watch, read or and listen and what good or bad we are absorbing from it. Nothing is superior than the other, it’s perspective that make us think that way. Amazing post!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You are insulting YA fantasy here Katie LOL. Some are not so mindless and have contemporary heavy topics inside. That being said, I wouldn’t say that books are better than other social media per se. The only advantage maybe is that books being sometimes thicker could offer added nuances and informations.

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    1. For sure, some books have lots to chew on and think about, others don’t. But I would argue the same thing about TV, film, games. I think the bingability of a lot of screen-based media is part of the reason we don’t think about it being nuanced or detailed compared to books, because we can consume it so quickly, but how it was *meant* to be watched compared to how we actually watch it is different.

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  5. Wow, this was a powerful post. The funny thing is too I was thinking about this just yesterday after an interaction I had with one of my friends at work. Even though I prefer to read books to hear a story that doesn’t make me better or smarter. It’s just what works for me. It’s how I choose to think critically and expand my world. But video games are arguably just as valuable in content. My friend is hardcore into virtual reality. In games he still has to make decisions and use his head to defeat the challenges and bosses. He is still expanding his world by playing through another and he is still learning to see in another person’s shoes by playing through the storyline! This was a very important topic that needs more voices talking about it. I loved every inch of this!! Great job 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow thanks! I think video games tend to get a bad rap, especially among bookish people. We tend to think all video games are Super Smash Brothers and have that level of difficulty/artistry. But I’ve played some truly amazing video games over the years, and they’ve helped me grow. I especially like your point about how video games can force us to think about our decisions.

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  6. Ooh what a great discussion post! It’s hard, as a reader, to accept that other forms of media or entertainment could be just as valuable. Like they say with so many things, moderation is key> And I think balance too. There’s nothing wrong with choosing TV or movies as a pastime over books, but I would agree that too much screen time could be detrimental. And yes, just because I read a lot doesn’t necessarily make me really intelligent or a good critical thinker.

    I would also say that reading in moderation is good too, though for me that’s more to help me carve out time to do social things (when quarantine isn’t a thing), to see people in real life. But that’s because I’m more of an introvert and is a personal preference – just like so many things.

    Really enjoyed this one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed, moderation is key to anything. I have fallen back in love with television since The Mandelorian first came out, forcing my family to stick to a one episode a week routine. It’s such a great way to get a story! Definitely better than binging. Doesn’t hurt that it was basically the *only* TV we were getting all week at the time, lol.

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  7. Well said.

    I have noticed that snobs (I am thinking of journalistic and academic types), when they want to dismiss someone’s thoughts as unworthy of consideration, will sometimes say something like, “This is what happens when people don’t read.” “Don’t read” is code for “don’t think clearly or deeply about anything” and “are uninformed about the world.” The reality is that people can read and come to different conclusions, and they usually wrong that the person they are criticizing is not widely read.

    I once belonged to an organization that worked to help communities create written forms of their languages. So I was in an environment that highly valued literacy, but also realized that people in what we call “oral cultures” can be incredibly smart and good with words in other ways. People in oral cultures tend to be able to memorize tons of information that would just be too much for those of us who come from print cultures. This does mean that their teaching methods tend to stress modeling, imitation, and rote memory, rather than research and analysis.

    On the whole, I think it’s good for cultures — and for individuals — to be “of the word.” Perhaps the most .book-centered culture in the world has been the Jews, because they believe that they have been entrusted with the very words of God, and in their creation story, God creates using words. As a result, they have always highly valued literacy and education, and have produced some of the world’s great thinkers and innovators. Another very scholarship-focused culture is China, and Chinese emigrants are also famous the world over for their smarts, hard work, and resourcefulness.

    But saying that other things being equal, literacy is better than nonliteracy is not the same thing as saying that there’s no other way to be smart. Some people really do have different learning channels that they are strongest in, and we need those too. Where would we be without the musicians, the dancers, the stage actors, the farmers, and above all, those whose people skills this bookworm envies?

    Sorry for the super long comment. I hope you take it as evidence that your discussion topic was a good one and well presented.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. No apologies for long comments here!

      I think we can all agree that (in general) being literate is valuable. I guess where I was taking offense is that reading as a HOBBY is superior to other hobbies. I think you make an excellent point, that people often equate “well read” with “well thought”, and as book bloggers we KNOW that those aren’t necessarily the same thing. Plenty of people read and read and read without stopping to THINK about what they’ve read. Especially true when they read the news…

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      1. That’s a good clarification. I think I mostly agree with what you say about reading as a hobby, though I do have a niggling feeling that if someone doesn’t read for pleasure at least occasionally, it’s possible they are not a fluent enough reader to read for comprehension in nonfiction. But I could be wrong. My husband is a VERY audio person, and it is MUCH easier for him to learn through audiovisual media, yet he managed to get 2 Master’s degrees.

        To you other point, the opposite is also true: just because someone disagrees with us politically, doesn’t mean they have not thought extensively about the subject … Hard as that might be for us to imagine … 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  8. This is a great discussion post!! I completely agree that reading isn’t inherently superior to other forms of media like movies. You could say that literacy is a useful skill to develop but it’s not like you need to be a brilliant reader to do well in society. I also like that you brought up different types of intelligence, I think that I’d much rather focus on what makes people happy and if an individual is a good person than if they’re traditionally intelligent and engage in ‘intelligent’ hobbies. People should have the opportunity to develop skills and interests that are useful and fun to them without us making moral judgements about what people enjoy doing.

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  9. I’ve thought about this quite a bit because it is a sentiment I see propagated by book bloggers and readers, yes, but also by people who do not read and clearly think they should. In some ways, I think maybe this attitude is a historical hangover, based in things like the Victorian idea that reading (the right) types of books can form a person morally and make one a good citizen and so forth. But I think there is also this drive from educators, parents, and librarians because in school, students do better if they read well because school is still mainly text-based based. If a child cannot read, they are not going to do as well in math, history, or science (let along English class) because the textbook is still the primary mode of imparting information to them and having them write is still the primary way of testing them.

    That being said, I agree with you that books are not inherently better. They can have various benefits, but I am sure that people also derive different benefits from doing things like observing artwork or watching films. And books can impart information or share a thought-provoking story, but can so can podcasts, audiobooks, movies, TV shows, and even video games. As our society moves increasingly towards audiovisual means of imparting information, one might actually wonder if reading will be so important in the future for students and others.

    Also, however, for adults, there is also this idea of reading=productivity (i.e. learning and expansion of the mind) and THAT is supposed to make it better than other hobbies. I once saw a blogger write a whole post complaining about someone on an airplane who was “wasting their time” doing a coloring book when they “could have been reading.” The implication was that we must always be busy improving ourselves or producing something something useful (such as new knowledge) and that other hobbies are therefore inferior. This I think is a harmful attitude born of our society and its work structure, which sees people only as valuable so long as they are producing. But why shouldn’t people be allowed to relax and enjoy themselves?? Why should we care so much if someone finds joy in coloring?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ooo, don’t even get me started on the leftover Victorian ideals surrounding the “right” type of books! The Victorians were the original genre snobs!

      I would argue that literacy in school is valuable for more than *just* school, because it isn’t just education that is text-based. Our whole culture is text-based. There are so many things we read every day as adults that we don’t give a second thought to, things like menus, emails, manuals, twitter, news, signs. But you also make a good point that we are moving away from that, not the least for accessibility reasons for those who can’t read.

      Ooo, that coloring book remark! I love coloring books, they help me relax, even more so than books! I can fully see why someone would want to do that on an airplane. Anyway, I always struggle to read on the airplane because its so noisy and there are so many distracting people around. (which is weird, because I’m normally very good at distracted reading…)

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  10. Yes, yes and yes! I 100 % agree with all of your points. I wrote a very similar post some time ago where I tried to challenge the claim that the book is always better than the film adaptation. I think what most people tend to forget is that movies create meaning through different means. Not only verbally, but especially non-verbally, e.g. through visuals, camera angles, editing, cuts or music and lighting. A film can thus be as challenging and complex as a book. I agree that books are important, but they aren’t more valuable than other media.

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  11. I love this post, not only do I agree with what you’ve said, I agree as an avid reader, a mum and a teacher! Especially with the way society is nowadays. In the past women used to sit around for hours doing needlework, how is that different to spending hours reading or spending time on social media. I love a blog post that sparks a discussion and makes people think!

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      1. Only difference being that these used to be tasks that were expected of people compared to playing candy crush, which isn’t really expected of anyone. Plus, sewing and painting develops a skill, whereas candy crush is just mind-numbing. However, with our lifestyles today being so different, I think we’re all entitled to a little mind-numbing activity every now and then to switch off.

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  12. I love this post! Thank you for the validation! I haven’t finished a book for years, and have been playing video games (because I felt this was much more relaxing and cathartic to me after a tiring day). But recently, I found myself wanting to read again because I wanted to write better. I think that if one wants to be a better writer, reading a lot helps, particularly reading good literature helps. I’m still in the phase of knowing which is good and bad literature, and I think I’m late in the scene of knowing that most YA fiction are not as in depth as it was decades ago. The YA I know were Newberry Award winning books and The Baby Sitter’s Club in my school’s library. (LOL I am not that old!)

    I just want to support some of your claims.

    For the past few decades, there have been several video games released that have incredible stories and immersive gameplay. Immersive in a way that the game puts you in the main protagonist’s shoes, which is basically what we’re doing when reading fiction. However, in games, you do everything. From solving puzzles to making tough decisions that change the entire flow of the story, and even the ending! It is very entertaining, but I believe that it is certainly much more immersive than reading.

    Also, I’ve recently studied programming and I find it to be very exhaustive to learn! This made me respect the people who are developing these games.

    From what I’m seeing, TV, games, and books are similar – they are all mediums to tell stories. They are level-uped versions of cave paintings!

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