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Imagine not reading…

I follow many avid readers on social media and so I tend to see at least one daily post about the importance of books in people’s lives.
These bibliophiles lust over photos of beautiful libraries or piles of tomes waiting to be read and their perfect day involves settling down with a book for part, if not all, of the time. But it’s odd that keen readers, with their big imaginations, can rarely empathise with one particular group of people – those who just don’t like reading.
To the book addict, anyone who doesn’t share their passion can feel almost alien. We simply can’t begin to imagine why anyone would close themselves off to all that pleasure and enlightenment. But year on year, reading levels among young people in particular have fallen.
Although a 2013 study of almost 30,000 schoolchildren showed that levels of reading enjoyment improved a little for the first time since 2005, around a fifth of young people (20.2%) still say that they rarely or never read outside class. When they do, the survey counts such things as texts, websites and instant messaging. ¹ I can almost hear the howls of protest about whether this comes under the category of ‘reading’ or not.


As someone who writes for children, this interests me, of course. But I have just started a new project involving interactive e-books, sent to schools in weekly chapters, so the issue of what turns young readers on and off is of even more pertinent than usual.
All I’ve written so far is Chapters One to Three of a spooky story for ten-year-olds, called My Cousin Faustina. On a Friday afternoon, pupils in schools around the UK read a chapter and – gulp! – they will get to choose what happens next. I then have to write the next chapter, based on their votes, by the following week. It’s taking a strong writerly stomach.
I’ve been asking around to find people who didn’t like reading when they were younger or else whose children/grandchildren are unenthusiastic now about picking up a book. I want to know what it is that turns them off.
Long screeds of text and irrelevant subject matter are two issues, it seems. So too is the wealth of alternatives to reading that young people have today. The school-age introvert can bury themselves in so many other kinds of activities than they could when I was just such a student. For me, books were almost the only option for my overactive imagination and it’s a good thing that children today have so much more.
On the other hand – wouldn’t it be great to find ways of getting more children excited by books and stories? So if it means they get to choose what happens or if they want to press some buttons, then that’s fine with me. Of course none of these things will work if the story’s not good enough. So wish me luck!
What turns (or turned) you off when it comes to reading?


Posted by author: Barbara Henderson
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6 thoughts on “Imagine not reading…

  • My granddaughter is a good reader. She has just moved up to the junior school, where for some reason her new teacher has formed the opinion that she doesn’t understand what she reads. She has now been put onto books she read two years ago, and is fed up. She can’t be bothered, and this re-inforces the idea that she does not understand. I haven’t yet worked out what to do.

  • I married a non-reader!
    It would have been a deal breaker, had he not showed me his collection of audio books.
    It’s a compromise.
    Isn’t it?

  • A different question we could ask is; why do we still see reading as the only way of gaining knowledge, inspiring imagination or even being ‘academic’? As you say there are so many other options now – stories are disseminated in myriad ways – Carlie’s partner listens to books for example.
    In the history of human communication writing is a late addition compared with speech and, perhaps, that could also include ‘art’ in whatever forms were around before sumerian clay tablets. As an art college we should see forms of communication as ways of getting messages across, without imagining that the form of communication is more important than the message, i.e. the message is ‘the thing’.
    Writing was the preferred medium for centuries to record, disseminate and pass knowledge down generations. In fact scholarly work was synonymous with reading and writing. This is only one of many means of communication, yet it is seen as the only ‘serious’ form: a lack of reading is equated with a lack of curiosity, knowledge and engagement with the wider world.
    Isn’t watching a play the ‘real’ form of appreciating a play (as it was intended?), rather than the dreary read-throughs of Shakespeare I had at school (1970s)? Or in a more modern medium, isn’t watching Laurence Olivier in Henry the fifth more valid, and more engaging, than reading the play? Perhaps not for everyone, but for many it is. That is the real point here, reading is a faculty that we don’t all have equally. For some it is a poor faculty relative to others such as maths, drawing, music or sculpture.
    A wide disparity between reading & writing and other faculties is labelled dyslexia; an unfortunate term as it is so often ‘read’ as being either laziness to engage or a disability. It is neither; it’s simply that many people communicate better via other forms. If we all excelled in language skills above all others where would we find scientists or inventors …or engineers to build the inventions …or architects to build the facilities to house them. In a recent test of graduates in architecture, 60% were found to be dyslexic. Reading novels for enjoyment, won’t be a pastime for most of them; but that doesn’t mean they are lazy, stupid, unimaginative or lacking in curiosity. I’m sure a similar figure would come from a survey of photographers (as I am) and many other artists too.
    A good description of this phenomenon is ‘to be a 3 dimensional thinker, trapped in a two dimensional world’. The world, and most of the problems we want to solve, exists in three dimensions. Yet having 3D thinking as a strong suite was seen as a disability in my school days. IQ in the top 1 per cent, but never finished an exam = must be either thick or lazy.
    Technology provides the tools to explore other forms of communicating with each other: essays submitted as podcasts anyone? ‘In my day’ as I increasingly say, none of this was available: to study for a degree meant a high degree of literacy, not so much as an entry requirement, but in order to write the exam papers in the core subjects that were requirements. Hopefully the current crop of students will have other options available; ones that are appropriate for the individual, rather than trying to make the individuals conform to the Victorian prescription.
    On a personal note, I’ve never read for enjoyment – mentally and physically it’s not enjoyable. Words and individual letters move around on the page which is (probably) a perceptual problem. What motivates me to read (quite a lot) is to find out stuff, but nearly all of this is non-fiction: It’s a means to an end. I’d rather see a video of instructions than read a text only manual because that’s natural for me – learning by copying others predates writing by millennia after all.
    I already have the technology to talk to my computer to write this, I’m interested to see what happens next. I imagine a utopia where books are absorbed without the need to read them. Or maybe I’ll wait for the film…

  • This a super idea and one I wish my daughter had the benefit of in school. I wish you all the best with this project and I am sure you will flourish even with those time constraints!

  • When it comes to reading, I am, a bit like one of those odd people that you sometimes meet, who will tell you that they, do like chocolate, but, only allow themselves two squares, from a, good quality, high cocoa solids, plain bar, every other day.
    I’m a very slow reader.
    I don’t have difficulty reading words, but I like to stop every few lines and consider what I have just read. To savour any good words. To rephrase any, (seemingly to me), wrong ones with the, ( as if reading out loud), voice in my head. But, most importantly, to mentally paint the pictures of any descriptive text; to set the scene.
    I don’t dislike reading, I simply don’t devour books, the way my husband does. He can get through three novels in a week, whereas, if I ever finish one within three months then you can ascertain that, it was either a very compelling book, or I have been on holiday. But then, he can rarely remember what he has read, and I’m am often amused to see him get halfway through a book before realising that he has read it before.
    I prefer to taste what I’m consuming. To savour it. To give it more permanent space in my head.
    If only I could be the same way with chocolate.

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