Promising News for Book Lovers Everywhere

Recently, book publishers got some good news. Researchers gave 852 disadvantaged students 12 books (of their own choosing) to take home at the end of the school year. They did this for three successive years.

Then the researchers, led by Richard Allington of the University of Tennessee, looked at those students’ test scores. They found that the students who brought the books home had significantly higher reading scores than other students.

…just having those 12 books seemed to have as much positive effect as attending summer school.

This study, along with many others, illustrates the tremendous power of books. We already knew, from research in 27 countries, that kids who grow up in a home with 500 books stay in school longer and do better. This new study suggests that introducing books into homes that may not have them also produces significant educational gains.

These are the opening sentences of David Brooks’ column in today’s New York Times, The Medium Is the Medium.  I don’t often quote as extensively as I am quoting in this post from one person’s work.  But this column is really valuable to those of us who have a deep love of learning, the kind of learning that comes from reading books of substance.  And, yes, I recognize the irony – I read this column as I glanced through my usual web sites for the day.  So, here’s more of the column  (I encourage you to read the entire column – it is worth the time!):

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.

…sometimes the medium is just the medium.

What matters is the way people think about themselves while engaged in the two activities. A person who becomes a citizen of the literary world enters a hierarchical universe. There are classic works of literature at the top and beach reading at the bottom.

A person enters this world as a novice, and slowly studies the works of great writers and scholars. Readers immerse themselves in deep, alternative worlds and hope to gain some lasting wisdom. Respect is paid to the writers who transmit that wisdom.

A citizen of the Internet has a very different experience. The Internet smashes hierarchy and is not marked by deference.

…the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import. To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world. You have to respect the authority of the teacher.

Right now, the literary world is better at encouraging this kind of identity. The Internet culture may produce better conversationalists, but the literary culture still produces better students.

It’s better at distinguishing the important from the unimportant, and making the important more prestigious.

Perhaps that will change. Already, more “old-fashioned” outposts are opening up across the Web. It could be that the real debate will not be books versus the Internet but how to build an Internet counterculture that will better attract people to serious learning.

Just yestereday, I quoted this line without comment: reading the right books is more important than merely reading books. I now add a comment.

Though I think reading the right book is more important than merely reading just any book, a reader has to start somewhere to develop a love of books and a deeper love of learning.  Letting a student choose 12 books for the summer (to state the obvious, one book to read each week) may be exactly the right place to start.

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