Is Reading Good for You?

The question up top there—I must say it's the sort of question that makes me uneasy. See, I know that reading is something that children need to know how to do and all of that, but there is something in me that cringes when people say, referring to one of my daughters, "Oh look, how wonderful, she's reading." It makes reading seem like this wholesome, healthful, therapeutic activity, as though it's exercise or flossing or something, rather than as the dangerous, delightful and thrilling obsession I know it to be.
It's not that I think everyone has to see reading this way, but it's weirdly—do I mean disempowering?—to reading to think of it as good for you. It defangs and declaws it, then sets it up on a lovely little pedestal. And of course, the problem is that things set up on pedestals are then left alone, sometimes admired, even dusted but usually simply ignored. It gives me the willies.
I know I'm oversimplifying greatly, and I know, too, that people mean
the best when they say this: they mean, "Look, she's doing something
wonderful and worthwhile," and I appreciate that, I do.
And, just to be clear: I'm all for virtue. I aspire to be good, to be patient and kind and generous (and all sorts of other nice virtues), it's just that it seems deeply wrong to me to try to induct reading into that circle of virtue.  I just don't know if reading, on its own, can bear the weight of the judgment: "GOOD." 

10 thoughts on “Is Reading Good for You?

  1. But it is…
    1-I learned everything I actually use in terms of grammar because of all the reading I do. I can look at a sentence and know if it’s “wrong” and what’s wrong with it because of how it sounds. I couldn’t tell you it’s because of the thing about the dangling participle, but I still got a 780 on the written section of the GRE.
    2-Ditto spelling
    3-Cultural context. I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard about something on the news or in a non-reading context and said “hey, I just read something about that” or am reading and say “hey that’s related to that thing I saw on tv”
    Beyond all the blah blah blah about the wonders of visiting other lands and such that one does through reading, those three things alone make reading “good for you,” and quite frankly beyond that-it’s necessary.

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  2. I think that perhaps what you object to is that by qualifying reading as “good” one makes it seem like something one ought to do as a necessary component of their well being- like going to the dentist. But maybe reading is more like taking a well-needed vacation, or having dinner with friends, or even traveling to that place you’ve always wanted to go. None of those things will make you a good person, or are inherently in and of themselves good, but they might just make you better. Does that help?

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  3. I agree. I love reading and I desperately want my children to love reading, but ultimately, I don’t want them to feel like they read because it’s good for them. Because that’s like eating asparagus. I want them to read because they get lost in it. I want them to get yelled at for reading in class and nearly walk in front of cars because they are so caught up in it. I want it to be something they do because they love.
    On a side note, though, whenever I feel like people are ruining reading by making it “good for you,” I google banned books and read some of the idiotic reasons people use to make reading “bad for you.”

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  4. I do think reading is mostly good for you, compared with many other things a kid could be doing. Watching TV or playing video games, for example. But you can have too much of a good thing as well. For example, my daughter who brings a book to the park and sits and reads instead of running around.
    I also have a question for you, maybe a possible idea for a blog post. What do you do about racism or sexism in old books? Do you let your kids read them? I was just pulling out an old favourite of mine “Summer on Boomerang Beach” by Mary Patchett, and reading through it found that some of the descriptions of the aboriginal child and aboriginal culture in general are not presented in a modernly sensitive manner. It’s not terrible stuff, but there’s an inate racism and colonial attitude that’s pretty pervasive. And, more minorly, the term “Niggerheads” is used to describe a reef formation. So, do I give this to my kids (6+9) to read? Do I use it as a jumping off point for discussion? Or do I just avoid exposing them to ideas of racism that they really have no idea about, living in a modern multicultural society like we do. There are other old books that have sexist attitudes, or other old-fashioned ideas. I’m curious to know your opinion on this!

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  5. But might not someone who says, “How wonderful, she’s reading” mean something other than a moralistic “good for you”? Might “wonderful” connote “a path to multiple (delightful, thrilling, dangerous) worlds,” “a refuge from the quotidian,” “a place uniquely your own”?
    Of course, I may be missing everything for lack of context, but I do see my child’s (and my own) reading as wonderful.
    And I agree with lb above about a good future post topic. I was pretty horrified reading aloud Pippi Longstocking to my then 3 and 5 y.o.s; I had no memory at all of that aspect of the story–PL was all braids and horse in my aging brain.

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  6. Well of course reading can be good and good for you. the problem is when people see it as completely good. The pedestal problem if you will.
    I love to read. I neglect my house and my responsibilities when in the middle of a good book. It is not universally good for me. I wake up from the end of the book with a guilt hangover and a messy house and grumpy children.
    My oldest loves to read as much as I do. She nearly flunked out of 8th grade despite being a very gifted student. Yeah, I know all parents say that, but does the average child teach themselves to read at 3? Anyway. She’s smart. she got bored in class. She chose to read during every single class of her 8th grade year. She barely managed to pass by rallying at the last minute.
    And yet when I tell friends this story, they laugh. “At least she’s reading!” they say, as if reading is somehow an excuse. If my child had been sluffing class or falling asleep or otherwise failing, their response would have been very different. They would have seen the seriousness of the problem and not excused her behavior.
    Maybe my example cause her issue. Maybe not. We will deal with it as we need to, but whatever the outcome, reading is not on a pedestal in my home. It has its wonderful points. It also has a bad side just like everything else.

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  7. C’s post really hits the nail in the head for me. I’m a teacher and I find that teaching writing is so much easier when my students are reading.
    As to whether or not it’s a virtue, there I am undecided. I think that what reading can provide for an individual is a powerful independence and imagination. To be lost in a story and to understand the human experience a little better for it is a function of the best books. Those things are incredibly valuable in this world and maybe can be seen as virtues?

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  8. I find it interesting that no one has entered into this discussion with the scientific argument. There has been a lot of interesting study regarding the “excercise” your brain gets while reading, and that prolonged increased focused brain activity of the kind that occurs when we read can lower risks of developing alzheimers and some other forms of dementia. Reading is literally “good for you”…like asparagus…
    That said, I completely agree that you should encourage your kids to read for a myriad of reasons (escape , thrill, blah blah blah) but I’m not sure that noting the fact that it’s “good for them” just like vegetables is necessarily equal to placing it on “the pedestal”. Never mind that I find your description in that passage beyone vague…obtuse really.
    This particular post, not my favorite.

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