They can be identified by their independent-bookstore tote bags, their “Book Lover” mugs, or—most reliably—by the bound, printed stacks of paper they flip through on their lap. They are, for lack of a more specific term, readers.
Joining their tribe seems simple enough: Get a book, read it, and voilà! You’re a reader—no tote bag necessary. But behind that simple process is a question of motivation—of why some people grow up to derive great pleasure from reading, while others don’t. That why is consequential—leisure reading has been linked to a range of good academic and professional outcomes—as well as difficult to fully explain. But a chief factor seems to be the household one is born into, and the culture of reading that parents create within it.
. . . .
The size of the American reading public varies depending on one’s definition of reading. In 2017, about 53 percent of American adults (roughly 125 million people) read at least one book not for school or for work in the previous 12 months, according to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Five years earlier, the NEA ran a more detailed survey, and found that 23 percent of American adults were “light” readers (finishing one to five titles per year), 10 percent were “moderate” (six to 11 titles), 13 percent were “frequent” (12 to 49 titles), and a dedicated 5 percent were “avid” (50 books and up).
“Every society has some group of people—somewhere between a minuscule amount and half the adults—that read a lot in their leisure time,” says Wendy Griswold, a sociologist at Northwestern University who studies reading. Griswold refers to this group as “the reading class,” and—adding up the NEA’s “frequents” and “avids,” and considering rates of serious reading in other similarly wealthy countries—reckons that about 20 percent of adults belong to the U.S.’s reading class.
. . . .
Some people are much more likely than others to become members of the reading class. “The patterns are very, very predictable,” Griswold told me. First, and most intuitively, the more education someone has, the more likely they are to be a reader. Beyond that, she said, “urban people read more than rural people,” “affluence is associated with reading,” and “young girls read earlier” than boys do and “continue to read more in adulthood.”
. . . .
Willingham also talked about the importance, which many researchers have examined, of the number of books in one’s childhood home. Studies looking at “family scholarly culture” have found that children who grew up surrounded by books tend to attain higher levels of education and to be better readers than those who didn’t, even after controlling for their parents’ education.
The mere presence of books is not magically transformative. “The question is, I take a child who’s not doing very well in school, and I put 300 books in their house—now what happens?,” Willingham said. “Almost certainly the answer is, not a lot. So what is it? Either what are people doing with those books, or is this sort of a temperature read of a much broader complex of attitudes and behaviors and priorities that you find in that home?”
. . . .
As Willingham explains in his book Raising Kids Who Read, three variables have a lot of influence over whether someone becomes a lifelong reader. First, a child needs to be a “fluent decoder,” he told me—that is, able to smoothly “go from print on the page to words in the mind.” This is something that schools teach, but parents can help with it by reading to and with their kids—especially when that reading involves wordplay, which particularly helps kids with the challenge of identifying the “individual speech sounds” that make up a word.
Second, Willingham said, these fluent decoders benefit from having wide-ranging background knowledge about the world. “The main predictor of whether a child or an adult understands a text is how much they already know about the topic,” Willingham noted. So parents can try to arm their kids with information about the world that will help them interpret whatever they come across in print, or make sure their kids have some familiarity with whatever it is they’re reading about.
Once those two things are in place, the final component is “motivation—you have to have a positive attitude toward reading and a positive self-image as a reader,” Willingham said.