To Read or Not to Read?

Harry S. Truman said “Not all readers are leaders but all leaders are readers.“

Trump, of course, may be a notable exception. He’s already publicly stated he does not read, preferring instead to “watch a lot of TV.” Kanye West also claims to be “a proud non-reader of books.” Beyond that, the list of boastful non-readers is rather short.

During the past several years, I’ve focussed increasing attention in my executive coaching on the next generation of leaders. And I have been startled by how many of these designated “high potentials” candidly tell me they don’t like to read. I admire their honesty but I disdain their ignorance of topics just waiting to be liberated by an enquiring mind.

One of my proteges sought my advice on an issue which I knew had been addressed in an earlier book. When I asked whether she had read my book, having had it in her possession for about six months, the answer was a firm “no.” I inquired why. “Well, I didn’t think I’d find the answer in there.” At my insistence, the relevant chapter was then read. “Wow,” she said, “you solved my problem!” You can’t find what you don’t read.

For four successive years, I encouraged the attendees at one of my advanced residential learning programs to identify “three or four books” they had read that, in some way, impacted their thinking over the prior nine months. While these findings are entirely anecdotal, on average, more than 85% of these aspiring leaders were unable to name a single title.

Almost two million books are published every day. So people do read, just less and less every year. Two years ago, The Washington Post reported that 40% of Americans had read at least one “work of literature” during the previous year. Thirty years earlier, the figure was 57%. Readership is clearly in decline.

According to Para Publishing, a website dedicated to authors, 58% of adults never read a book after high school. This is because they assume what they learned in school remains true today. Many practising physicians were taught things in university that have been scientifically proven wrong. (Medical research currently has a “half-life” of 2-3 years.)

We are not born with a natural aversion to reading. Children fall in love with their favourite stories. In a recent survey, over 60% of respondents under 18 said they had not read any printed books other than their textbooks or comic books in the past year. So what turned this love of reading into adamant indifference?

I suggest formal schooling likely had something to do with Millennials’ distaste for reading books beyond the curriculum. Some mistakenly feel they have to finish what they start, no matter how long, boring or uninteresting. Some of my proteges think they might be “tested” on what they read and hence fear failure. Some have difficulty remembering what they read. Beyond the negative impact of schooling, social media is clearly the preferred option of the younger generation – why pick up a classic, when you can pick up your cell phone, text a friend, communicate via Facebook, check out Instagram or stream YouTube?

Reading isn’t always easy – some books are difficult because they’re too dense, annoyingly pedantic or overly erudite. But reading need not be a mentally draining academic experience. We can read for pure enjoyment and some books deliver deep insights and unforgettable memories: they may make us laugh, cry, even sit on the edge of our chair in anticipation. And several studies say literary fiction makes people more empathic by enabling them to see things from another’s point of view.

Are those who read books smarter than those who don’t? The answer is an unqualified yes. Reading is easier if you’re smarter and the predisposition to read does rise with intelligence. There’s an isomorphic relationship between reading and success. Reading exercises the plastic brain, forcing us to think and cross-index information already acquired. It engages the imagination and dramatically improves one’s attention span.

Fiction entertains the brain; non-fiction informs it. The more varied your reading, the more you understand. The more you understand, the more your ignorance is reduced. And when that happens, the more engaged, motivated and powerful you feel.

Our brains are shaped by words – so nothing can reach our minds quite the same way as a book, the natural home for words. Culturally, books may be the best things humans ever created. We have a moral duty, as well as a practical one, to acquire wisdom. And you are unlikely to get very far in life based on what you already know.

Those who decide not to read, choose to engage in willful blindness which, simply stated, is a refusal to know what could be useful. This means they genuinely believe they’ve discovered all things necessary to live a successful life, because nothing of importance in that regard remains unknown. You already know what you know and, unless your life is perfect, what you know is clearly not enough. If your life isn’t going as well as you’d like, it’s your knowledge that’s insufficient, not your life. Ignorance and arrogance go hand in hand: the less you learn, the more you think you know.

Nietzsche said a person’s worth is determined by how much truth can be tolerated. The truth is, with years before us and unknown obstacles waiting down the road, we are by no stretch of the imagination the sum of what we’ve already discovered. When we open a book in search of new, deeper meanings, we discover we have even more to learn. Samuel Arbesman, an applied mathematician, said “Every day we read the news, we have the possibility of being confronted with a fact about our world that is wildly different from what we thought we knew.”

The older I get, the more books I buy (yes, I also read blogs and on-line magazines – my research would be greatly diminished without search engines). This is not a consequence of having more time but rather the realization of how little I actually know and the pure satisfaction of finding and contemplating new ideas (and making cryptic notations and translations in the margins) as I thumb through the pages. Remembering it all is of course quite another issue.

As a teenager, I took penmanship in high school. A few years ago, I discovered my grandchildren were no longer being taught cursory writing in elementary school – why bother with writing when keyboarding is required for texting friends? I guess that’s all you really need to know when it comes to understanding the seemingly increasing disinterest in reading just for the sake of reading among younger generations.