One page at a time
Several years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts issued a report on the state of reading in America. The results were startling: Only 30 percent of American 13-year-olds read almost every day. The number of 17-year-olds who never read for pleasure has increased dramatically in recent years. About half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 never read books for pleasure. The average person between ages 15 and 24 spends nearly three hours a day watching TV, and just seven minutes reading.
The reasons for this rapid decline are many, but fairly obvious. Text messages, Twitter, Facebook and the internet can provide results in a matter of seconds; they can deliver instant gratification at a touch of a finger to a keypad. Books, whether they are printed and bound or in e-book form, are the Stone Age of modern communication. The stories told in them take up enormous globs of time, and what teenager would want to sacrifice valuable hours sequestered in the comfort of an oversized chair swallowed up in an epic novel waiting for the emotional and intellectual payoff when he or she could get the same feeling simply by hitting a few keys?
Thanks to the efforts of local high schools, hundreds of teenagers in southern Chester County are spending their summers not only texting and tweeting, but reading. Summer Required Reading programs at Avon Grove, Kennett and Unionville High Schools are introducing students to such classics as Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, as well as to a library of modern writers whose voices are just beginning to be heard. This summer, it is not uncommon to see a dog-eared copy of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes laying on a back porch table, or John Green's The Fault in Our Stars being read over coffee at a local cafe. Though the student is being held accountable for reading over the summer – as well as completing worksheet assignments – these programs are not being run with an iron fist. Rather, in each program, the student has his or her choice of what to read from an extensive list of books, broken down according to grade level.
Whether or not the teenagers who are participating in these high schools' summer reading programs will grow up to be regular readers will, of course, be influenced by the course their individual lives will take. But of that future, the story has already been told: in study after study, it has been proven that those who read on a regular basis are able to remain more focused, build an expanded vocabulary, create better written and verbal communication skills, develop a deeper standard of comprehension and retain more information.
The local teachers and administrators who have been facilitating these programs are to be commended, merely for opening the door to what a lifetime of reading may look like. In its Aug. 13 edition, the Chester County Press will devote a portion of its space to some of these teachers and administrators, highlighting their summer reading list programs.
The power of television, the internet, and social media is magnified by their ability to provide the modern-day bells and whistles of communication to a society that has become accustomed to being shown, not asked. Unopened, a book is a silent object, and once opened, it does not promise immediate fulfillment. It is often reticent to share all of its stories and secrets, and rarely are its answers easily found. And yet, as hundreds of local high school students are discovering this summer, a book, much like our most cherished friends, will begin to ask questions of us. It will inspire us to think. It will call on us to feel. Eventually, it will also reveal the world, slowly, one page at a time.