Why Do Students Read?

Barbara’s post about promoting reading for pleasure reminded me of something Twyla Tharp wrote in her book The Creative Habit:

I read for a lot of reasons, pleasure being the least of them.

Tharp goes on to describe the various reasons she reads–to compete with other people, for personal growth, and mostly for inspiration. She talks about how she reads–she starts with the most recent thing an author has written and reads everything by that author moving backwards in time; she reads as much as she can around a work–books by the author’s contemporaries, commentaries on the author, biographies of the author, or the author’s letters.

Phew, that’s a lot of reading. The point of it all is utilitarian. She’s reading to get ideas for her work. This seems to be true for many creative people: John Waters admits to subscribing to hundreds of magazines and living with scores of books; Bob Dylan tells in Chronicles how he went to the New York Public Library and read microfilmed newspapers from the 19th century for inspiration.

Why, how, and what do students read? There’s a lot of confusion on this topic. There are some studies, hard-to-believe, that claim that most college grads can’t even read a short text and follow directions. The Chronicle runs a list every few months “What They’re Reading On College Campuses” but that is sales at college bookstores so presumably it includes professors as well.

I’d like to see one of those work practice study thingies on this topic. What about a bulletin board off the library web site that simply asks Why do you read? There are so many interesting and various different reasons to read–for grades, to learn, to compete, to feel part of a community, to escape reality, to be interesting to other people, to be well-rounded, for pleasure–it seems a shame to focus on just one.

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