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by Oliver DeMille

Are you an “Anti-reader”?

Are you an “anti-reader”? No matter how much you love to read, or how much you encourage others to read, you just might be.

beware the anti-readers DeMille-Great Minds read, read, readIt’s surprising, but there are actually a lot of people who argue against reading—in one way or another.

Most of them are well-intentioned, and some of them really do mean to help others. The problem is that in a world where voracious reading is nearly always connected with great learning, and usually with effective leadership, we all need to do more to encourage a lot of reading.

There are several different forms of Anti-Reading, and each is worth knowing about. When we understand the views of the Anti-Readers in our midst, it’s easy to recognize them and see past their agenda.

When we don’t, we can sometimes get caught up in their spin for a while before we realize their folly.

Here are a few of the Anti-Reading viewpoints:

Type A:

“Reading is for kids. Adults need to get on with the important stuff in life.”

This view is poignantly portrayed in the classic movie Dead Poet’s Society. When one student gets excited about out-of-class reading and participation in an extracurricular play, his father gets very upset.

He tells his son that it’s time to grow up and do the “real” things in life, not stay caught in childish things.

The viewer is left with the distinct impression that the father seldom reads anything for enjoyment or even self-improvement—and that he desperately needs these things in his life.

Type B:

“Only read the books I say are important.”

This comes from many different perspectives, but each person sharing this view seems to think his/her perspective is the only good one. “Only read scripture,” says Reb Saunders in the excellent book The Chosen.

Some English teachers have been known to say, “Only read books on the great classics list. The rest aren’t worthy of your time.”

Yet another viewpoint commands young people to “Only read the scriptures and great principles of science and math,” or “Only read the scriptures and great principles of freedom,” or… There are many Type B views, all of them narrow.

Type C:

“Only read the books that agree with me!”

This is the book-burning, Hitler-esque approach to Anti-Reading. If any book, or even anything the author ever did or said, disagrees with those in power, the books should be burned or banned—according to this extreme view. The result, of course, is a reduction of thinking and a loss of freedom.

The opposite should be true! Let people read authors that disagree widely, from Marx and Madison, Dewey and Montessori, to Skousen and Quigley, etc.

Disagreement teaches so much. Just read the dialogues of Plato or the battling characters in Shakespeare—they’re full of highly educational disagreements. So is the Bible.

Education is all about people learning to really think! The scriptures are full of both good and evil people and ideas—because the comparisons are vital! Without them, learning is always shallow. Just consider how broadly Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln read. Great minds read, read, read.

Type D:

“Reading is the only way to learn.”

This view is an interesting twist on Anti-Reading, kind of like Anti-Anti-Reading but it has the same effect: it generally discourages young people from reading.

Let me illustrate how Type D works: I once mentioned Joan of Arc as an example of a great leader who was mentored in the classics and did great things. A participant in the crowd took issue with me, noting that most historians believe Joan couldn’t read and that even if she could she was too young to have read much.

I responded: “I never said she read. I said she was mentored in the classics! She said she was taught by angels, and the wisdom and detail of her knowledge was clearly very deep. Don’t you think angels are classics? Or that angels are mentors?”

The participant seemed downright shocked by my words. “You mean classics can be people?” she asked. “People are the greatest classics,” I told her. “Learning to read them is a key part of any quality education!” I was very thankful that she helped me clarify this point, because without her question I had thought it was obvious to everyone.

It wasn’t, but it is a powerful truth. Reading isn’t the only way to learn, but great classics (great ideas and people) and great mentors (great people, books, or otherwise) are still central to excellence in education. For example, I have a friend who is so severely dyslexic that he simply cannot read. He’s never read a full sentence in his life, he told me. Yet he is one of the most educated and wise people I know. He listens to books on audio, to numerous video speeches and workshops, and he watches, discusses and thinks.

He is the CEO of a multi-million dollar company in California, and to talk to him you’d think he spent his life as a philosophy, English, or history professor. He’s that broadly and deeply read.

But he did it all by audio, and a little video and live classroom attendance. Don’t discourage other types of learning in the name of supporting reading! My friend hasn’t technically read anything, but he’s one of the best readers I know.

Type E:

“Only read books that have been clearly selected by the experts for readers of a certain age.”

This is the style of Anti-Reading that C.S. Lewis railed against in his wonderful book The Abolition of Man. If young readers are taught to read just one type of material, Lewis noted, we will raise generations of weak citizens who are easily swayed by media, government, and forces that hurt society.

Broad and deep reading in the greatest books, and other books as well, is necessary for freedom to last, and young people who read a lot—in many fields—are far more likely to tackle the classics and scripture than those who don’t.

Type F:

“Don’t read that junk! There are better things to read.”

In many ways, this is the worst Anti-Reader approach of all (next to the book burners). It takes many forms, but the gist is that reading fun books will somehow get in the way of reading great books.

This just doesn’t pan out in the real world. The truth is, as mentioned, that young people who love to read a lot of things tend to read a lot more of the great things.

Type G: Only read [fiction/non-fiction]

Lots of young readers find fiction most interesting, and have little interest in science, history, etc. Or, to the contrary, many are only interested in non-fiction, and parents worry that they don’t experience literature. The truth is: When a reader reads a lot, they tend to find connections to other subjects along the way, and these connections naturally lead to a broadening experience – the deeper they go into their pet subject!

And, family readaloud can be a great way to explore unfamiliar topics to get a “taste.” In addition, as a student matures in an environment where self-education is the norm (and especially where the value of education as preparation for a personal mission is taught and modeled), they will tend to heed more and more that inner voice that urges them to explore things that perhaps hold less delight, but which they need. And The Bridge (that last year before Depth Phase) is a time where students with a lot of depth in one or two areas fill in some gaps in areas of importance.

Type H: Don’t re-read what you’ve already read

Often we hear parents lament that a previously reluctant reader has finally started to read for pleasure – but that the child is “stuck in a rut” of only listening to or reading the same book or books, over and over. Now, we’re not indifferent to the concern that parents have of hoping that their child will have a variety of interests and experiences; but keep in mind, something of value that is experienced over and over does, in fact, yield new and important value every time! Great minds in history often honed their reasoning and expanded their thinking by studying over and over again a few select texts. Their experience was arguably not poorer because they lacked the internet, or because they didn’t have a library of thousands of volumes to choose from. Their insights and correlations came face to face with greatness through pondering, seeking and persisting in the process – using a few quality books as their starting place.

Now, if the works that hold your child’s attention are truly unwholesome, this is no longer an academic issue; it’s a parenting one, and you need to approach it with the care and consideration you would with anything that was influencing your child in a way that is unhealthy or dangerous for them.

But in most cases, we can actually get behind their choices! In our experience, children and youth who have a special favorite can be enticed to increase their exposure during family readalouds or in peer social/academic opportunities. Meanwhile, summon the will to celebrate their ability to go deeper and deeper in the same work; it’s a skill that too few learners in our day cultivate!

How it Really Works

When I was a student at BYU, one of our professors was trying to get us to read more “great literature,” and one day a student raised his hand and asked if a certain author’s books were “great literature.” The professor paused, then he said something that I’ve never forgotten. As I remember it, he told us:

“When I first started teaching over two decades ago, a student asked me the same question. I told her that ‘No, this author’s works could never compete with Shakespeare, Austen, or Tolstoy.’

“Other students raised their hands and asked about their favorite authors, and I shot them down, one by one. I was gratified with the few ‘teacher’s pets’ in the class who asked me about Bronte and Milton. I felt the lecture had been very successful.

“But during that school year, I noticed something very interesting. The students in the class where I shared my opinions about their favorite authors did markedly worse than the average of my other classes. I wondered why. I wracked my brain, and I called in several students from the other classes and asked them why they had done so well.

“As I talked with these students, a terrible thought began forming in my head. I tested it by asking questions of those who had been in the underperforming class, and my worries were affirmed. It turns out that in the class where I had authoritatively belittled the writings of Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, Louis L’Amour, Ayn Rand, Dale Carnegie, James Michener, and so on, most students had read only the assigned books, and a large number of the students hadn’t even finished their assignments.

“In the other classes, where we never discussed these authors, the percentages were very different: more students read all the assignments plus a number of extra books for fun. They also tested with better grasp and retention of the books that were assigned. When I asked what other books they read, I was surprised to hear some familiar names: Carnegie, L’Amour, Rand, Herbert, etc.

“I was humbled. I was also instructed. I had always supposed that students who read dime-store fiction were neglecting their other studies. Actually, the opposite is true. Those who love to read, tend to do a lot of reading—of fun fiction and also of deeper materials. Those who don’t love to read, don’t read very much. This should have been obvious. I discovered that most of those who don’t read westerns, science fiction, mysteries and so on really don’t like to read a lot of anything and don’t read ‘great literature’ either.

“So, my answer to your question is this: Read whatever makes you happy, whatever you enjoy, and be sure to include the well-known greats in your reading as well. If you want to, read Tom Clancy, Louis L’Amour, Donald Trump, Ayn Rand, Robert Ludlum…whatever. Read a lot. The more the better! And also read the great books!”

Finding the Key

As a teacher myself for many years, I experienced the same thing.

The driving urge many adults feel to tell young people to stop reading westerns, sci-fi, or other fiction and instead to go read something “important” pretty much always backfires. The best students just ignore this advice every time they hear it. And the students who do follow this counsel usually stop reading their fiction, start reading something “important,” get bored, and stop reading altogether. Or only read the minimum. They seldom get to the greats!

Nearly all the students who closely read the greats are those who are reading other things as well.

The key is to tell them what really works:

“Hey, that book by Tom Clancy is so interesting. It reminds me of On War by Clausewitz! Have you read it? It’s so awesome!”

“Johnny, you’re reading Jubal Sackett by Louis L’Amour? What a great book! I love that book. I’ve read it several times. It reminds me of Lives by Plutarch. Have you read Plutarch? It’s so good—like L’Amour. Different, but both are sooooooo great!”

“Mary, are you enjoying that Robert Ludlum book? I liked The Bourne Identity the best of his works. He’s such an engaging author. In fact, his books remind me of Shakespeare’s play on Julius Caesar. They’re so similar. I mean, the language is different of course, but the depth and plots are so intricate and fascinating. You should read them both and compare their main themes. I learned so much from this.”

Of course, if you are listening to any of the Anti-Reading types (A thru F above), you’ll be against this approach. But reading is sadly becoming a lost art in the modern world—kind of like letter writing.

For the American founding fathers, letters were the main place they shared their great ideas on freedom. What a tragedy that today few people write such great letters anymore.

It will be an even bigger tragedy if reading loses any more ground in our society. We need to recommend reading—far and wide. There is of course a place for suggesting that a student skip a reading on moral grounds, where the material is pornographic or promotes evil or gratuitous violence, etc. But the message in such cases is not that there are better things to read, but that such smutty materials are just plain wrong.

In every other case, reading is central to a great education for nearly every student, and the various kinds of Anti-Readers do a lot more harm than good. They mean well, but they don’t understand that loving to read means reading a lot—not just reading some narrow, shallow, or authoritarian list. C.S. Lewis was right!

Unlocking Education

By the way, this also applies to textbooks. I often teach people to read “classics, not textbooks,” but in truth I’ve read a lot of both.

I find that this is true with most people who love to read—they don’t turn down a textbook just because it’s a textbook. They check it out to see what it has to offer.

Hopefully, they won’t think that using only textbooks is the best curriculum. That was my point with emphasizing classics.

Too many students are taught to read textbooks to the exclusion of everything else. That said, if you’re reading far and wide, including classics and everything else, read some textbooks too! It’ll be fun. It will even be fun if you hate the textbook, because you can share how bad it was with people.

Oh, while we’re on the subject, one textbook I highly recommend is Constitutional Law by John E. Nowak and Ronald D. Rotunda, Seventh Edition. Now that’s a great textbook!

Okay, so maybe you’re rolling your eyes at this point. That’s good. Read what moves you, not just somebody’s list.

But here’s my main point:

Beware anyone saying “Don’t read this…” or “Don’t read that…” If they say the material is immoral, or evil, okay. Think about it, and if you agree, then such counsel is wise. But to make any of the Anti-Reader arguments above is almost always uninformed, shallow, and narrow. It seldom leads to wisdom, depth, excellence, or a great education.

Instead, help young people love reading. Set an example by reading yourself. Remember that those who love to read and do a lot of it nearly always read much more in scripture and the greats than anyone else. Don’t be swayed by the false words of the Anti-Readers.

Reading is a great part of a quality education. It’s also fun. And it can be incredibly interesting.

Show me a person who reads widely and deeply, in many fields and genres, who skips evil and otherwise reads, reads, reads, and I’ll show you a better citizen, person, and leader than he/she would have been with less knowledge and wisdom.

Join Oliver and our book-loving crew for Mentoring in the Classics! >>