Stop shaming people who don’t like to read

The human race started out somewhere between the emergence of primates and the development of cuneiform script—sometime in that period of a bazillion years—great at learning by doing. And we dominated the Neanderthals by being highly social, which means we learned by watching as well.

Doing and watching fed our learning. So it makes sense that the majority of people today are S types—people who learn better from doing or seeing rather than from reading. A chart showing the types of the general population vs the Reddit population is a great way to think about readers vs non-readers. Reddit is a site for people who love to read—about anything and everything. All the Reddit lovers are likely N types.

So that most people don’t like to learn from reading explains a lot. Like why so few novels are sold each year. But also why so few people like being in school all day. The problem is that we treat reading as if it’s the Holy Grail of learning. Yet it’s not the way most people like to learn.

This explains all the IKEA humor. So few of us are great at reading directions. And it explains why my kids love watching the Food Channel. We did not learn to cook all those thousands of years ago by following directions—instead we did the only thing we could: by watching someone else make our food.

In short, reading is no way to learn. Increasingly I’m thinking reading is about pleasure. Yes, ideas are good. But seriously, we do not need to know what Pluto looks like in order to survive. We are curious. We like learning. But that doesn’t mean we have to read to learn.

In graduate school, where I learned that you do not have to read to pass tests about literature, I did end up reading The Pleasure of the Text by Roland Barthes, and it blew my mind as it dissected all the lovely, fulfilling, joyful moments that come from reading. Like, the breath we take in as we pause between paragraphs. The white space is where the interaction between the reader and the text is the strongest.

I could go on. But I know better. Because most people don’t get that sort of pleasure from reading. And so what? It’s fine to not like to read.

I tell this to my ESFP son all the time. He is great at performing music, in part, because he doesn’t feel fulfilled looking at words on a page. I tell him people who love to read generally do not love to perform music. I tell him, you don’t like to read but you jump from swings.

So many of my coaching calls start with someone wishing they were someone they’re not. And it’s almost always an NT that they are wishing themselves to be. The want to be a reader, an intellectual, someone who collects high grades and good degrees and makes their parents proud. But actually, it’s the worst thing you can tell many kids, that they have to like to read. It’s like denying who that kid is.

My son doesn’t like to read. He reads to get things done. But he’ll try getting something done a million other ways before he’ll reach for a book. And he should do it that way: it’s human.

31 replies
  1. geekyhybrid
    geekyhybrid says:

    Well, let’s generalize this: Stop shaming people for being themselves.

    As an NT myself, I do recognize that I’m outnumbered by other non-NT MBTI types, particularly STs. I don’t really care if other people don’t like reading, or playing on the computer – I don’t care if other people are just generally different from me. However, I *don’t* like that the numerous non-NTs out there are allowed to get on my case for having my intellectual interests (including reading for knowledge). I think shaming people for not reading is – at least partially – backlash response from people who were shamed for enjoying reading (as well as other intellectual pursuits).

    …but this is also probably a big ask. I’ve found STs are also really not fond of change or accommodation toward others’ differences.

  2. kina
    kina says:

    I have to disagree with the post and don’t like the generalizations built into it. I am a hard core INTJ and love reading. I devour non-fiction business, marketing, psychology or economics books. Reading such non-fiction books is like watching someone do something. Oftentimes I wouldn’t have access to a real world learning experience in those areas and those books are the perfect gateway. And btw, I read close to 150 books a year.

    • Anna
      Anna says:

      I have read that INTJ’s don’t like generalizations of type. :)

      But also, I think your post supports the post — INTJ’s are the biggest Reddit group, coming in at what looks like a quarter.

      -Anna (INTP, reading lover since always)

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      I am also and INTJ that loves to read. As a counterpoint to your response, I agree with this post. Not everyone needs to be a reader. Just because you and I love to read doesn’t mean that it’s an efficient use of time for everybody else.

  3. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    My ENTJ son has always loved reading and he is very selective. I have not done any vocabulary building activities with him and his vocabulary is extensive. He usually looks up words he doesn’t know because he cannot tolerate not knowing. For a few years he always put the subtitles in Netflix because he liked reading so much. I agree that not everyone has to love reading, but to suggest that people don’t learn much from reading is going way too far. There are all kinds of people and as many ways to learn.

    • Anna
      Anna says:

      I took the post to be about how many people (S types) don’t learn through reading, not that the minority (NT types) don’t.

  4. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    More sour grapes?

    It’s commendable to appreciate the kids one has rather than constantly trying to change them into the kids one wanted, but it’s ridiculous to keep going off on the things one’s kids don’t do as if they’re useless.

    Reading is a great way to learn. Perhaps it’s a great way to learn for only a minority of the population, but that doesn’t matter unless your job is teaching large groups of certain demographics. Each one of us is in a minority somehow.

    My ability to learn through reading was fundamental to my success. Perhaps I would have had other core skills were I a different person, but reading has served me well. I went from a series of terrible rural schools to a PhD and a six figure salary, which wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t like to read and learn from reading.

    Most people whose kids like to read (my boy just found Harry Potter, which ought to take care of him for a while) feel happy about it because we know that reading is the easiest way to gain vocabulary and learn grammar, which will be relevant in testing, college, and the professions. I know that standard middle-class track gets pooh-poohed here a lot, but most of us wouldn’t be here without it, and most of our kids will follow it to some extent.

    In our specific case, my son hopes to test into a local exam school. Liking to read will be sufficient on its own to get an acceptable score on the reading sections. If he didn’t like to read (and learn by reading), he’d need intensive tutoring to be able to pass the test. Later on, if he still wants to go to college for mechanical engineering, he’ll have to be able to read and write well to get in. This won’t happen without reading; even if the only learning resulting from reading were just the form of language itself, that would be sufficiently important.

    It’s fair game to ridicule the “excellent sheep” of Mr. Deresiewicz’ epic rant, but the truth is that if you want to work in the professions, you have to read just to get there, let alone succeed. Just because you don’t want that path for your children, or they’re not inclined to succeed on it, doesn’t mean it’s useless for everybody else.

    When I feel sad at the idea that my son will no longer be at home with me, one of the things I realize I’ll miss is reading with him. I would have liked to host a great books course for older kids. Perhaps I’ll find a way to do that anyway.

    • Katarina
      Katarina says:

      Particularly well put. It is a joy to hear how your son learns and grows and discovers life. It must be a joy for your whole family. You may consider teaching literature in your homeschool community. I have done it for years. Very rewarding and I get to focus on what I think is worthwhile. The freedom is fantastic.

    • Blackwalnut
      Blackwalnut says:

      Yes, well said. Reading is pretty much a foundational skill, even people who don’t read for pleasure would admit this. More and more, these posts are sounding defensive. “My kid doesn’t like/isn’t good at X, therefore X is overrated/a waste of time/unnecessary.”

      • Lucy Chen
        Lucy Chen says:

        I think the message is that we need to simple accept and embrace who we are authentically. And accept our kids as they are, and encourage them to be their true selves, too.

        We spend so much effort trying to “fix” what we are not good at, or our weaknesses. But our life would be so much more fulfilling and joyful if we simply accept our weaknesses, and work on thing or learn in ways that is more natural to us. For example, reading vs doing, or both.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      You misunderstand the point of the post.

      I am not saying whether or not readers should read. This post is not about readers. This post is about non-readers and how we tell them they should read.

      The post is also about how dull it becomes to extoll the glories of reading when less than half the human race likes to do it. And when it has been more natural throughout the evolution of humans to learn by doing.

      There is a whole half of humanity that is very smart but does not like to read. They learn just fine and they learn many things you cannot learn in a book.

      I wrote the post because I did not know about this until I had a son who doesn’t like to read. I never even really understood that there were smart people who don’t read.

      And it’s a problem that school has no way to teach by doing or copying, so school overemphasizes reading and then people who like to read thing that somehow they are smarter or better for liking to read.

      I know, because I was raised to be one of those people. And I think it’s short-sighted and self-aggrandizing.


      • layla
        layla says:

        i love to read. i had a class of 5th graders in which fewer than half ever “chose” to read, and fewer than 50% were reading at “grade level” fortunately a few of them read “above” level, so you know, it sort of evened things out (NOT)… in the state of indiana there’s a reading test for 3rd graders where supposedly if they don’t pass, they’ll be held back. i’m waiting for elementary school parking lots to be filled with cars driven by 17 year old 3rd graders.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        I understood exactly who you were talking about. It was pretty clear to me.

        The only thing my kids will read consistently are comic books.

      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        The points you make in your reply are good, and would have been a good addition to your original post.

        I remember when I was a kid there seemed to be more of a place in school for learning that didn’t require reading. Shop class, for example. And we used to have more of an apprenticeship system in this country (as they still do in Germany). I’d like to see that brought back.

        It’s quite clear to me, for example, that I am a mediocre mechanic and carpenter. The simplest things (changing a battery, or making a shelf) are inordinate challenges to me. Other people have greater skills in non-verbal learning and coordination that make them better at this sort of thing. I am astounded by the work of the fellow I hired to fix the siding and sills on my bays. I honestly could never make those joints, and it’s a good thing I figured that out as a teenager.

        I agree with you that our schools focus too narrowly on a certain set of skills and systems of learning, and it is not very kind of those of us who are very good at such sets and systems to ignore that problem. Having children who learn best through non-verbal means and who don’t like to read is yet another good reason to homeschool.

        My initial response, however, was to what you wrote in the post. It’s not based on a misunderstanding but a misstatement. If you wouldn’t like someone to react negatively to you saying that reading is no way to learn, you oughtn’t say “In short, reading is no way to learn.” That continues to be untrue; reading is a great way to learn, though perhaps not for everybody. Hyperbole does clarity a disservice.

      • Liz, mom of 5 under 10
        Liz, mom of 5 under 10 says:

        I understood the post completely! I love to read for information. Gardening, recipes, baby wearing, adoption, new homeschool groups, blogs, directions, etc. I don’t read novels or even nonfiction.
        I have an almost 10 year old son who I would say isn’t a reader. What I mean by that is you won’t find him curled up in a corner reading a book. He is not into “chapter books”. He could care less. He will look over at HandyMan magazine, read little blurbs in the the DK Civil War book, read bits of the local Crime section in the city paper..…but no not “real books”.

        I was really cheering this post on. We live in a middle to upper class neighborhood where it seems that a BIG HUGE MILESTONE is when your little kid can suddenly read chapter books. For a long time I have to admit I thought it was an important skill to learn. I thought it taught him discipline. I thought how wonderful if you are on a plane or stuck in a Dr office…then I looked at myself and realized I listen to podcasts, I watch videos, I email/text….I don’t read in those situations either.Ha!
        My son is very hyper focused on landscaping. So he watches tons of shows and hangs out with our subdivision landscaper most Wednesdays and Thursdays. Every week the guy comments on how much more knowledgable our son is than the 19 year olds working with him. He jokes about giving him the company one day. My son has made business cards and a landscaping sign on his bike. He has even gotten some of our uptight neighbors to pay him to shovel snow.I would say he is going to be just fine :)

  5. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    There’s no reason to shame someone who doesn’t prefer to read to learn. However, I think they’re limiting their avenues of ideas and instruction. There are times when the information you’re seeking is only available in the text format regardless of its optimal delivery. Text is compact and, if used correctly, is very exacting and precise. Also communication via bulletin boards and the Internet would have been delayed by a number of years if we had to rely primarily on images and videos.

  6. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    We have a niece in high school. She spells acid as “asid” and soap as “soop” so we corrected her spelling. She has a hard time multiplying by 6, 7, 8, and 9 so we help her practice the multiplication table. She is great at singing and performing. She’s a brave kid. Maybe she’s dyslexic. We don’t expect her to like reading, but she has to read better to graduate from high school.

  7. sarah
    sarah says:

    I think until you have a non reader, this posts seems like blasphemy. I have two kids (NF amd ST ) that do nothing but read. I have an SF who hates to read. I had his vocabulary tested, since I was worried about his lack of reading. He was in third grade, and he tested in 7th grade. Vocabulary can be taught in the home, not only through print.

    But this goes contrary to what our society values as success, and parents worry their kids will grow up to be loosers. Our society only accepts intelligence through facts, and only accepts facts can be learned through books.

    It is actually a form of ignorant thinking to support this, and I often wonder if those who do, have the intelligence to see their own hypocrisy.

  8. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    The only shaming for not reading I have heard is from those in the education industry.

    Which is ironic since, the biggest impediment to reading is, the education industry.

  9. Abigail Diehl-Noble
    Abigail Diehl-Noble says:

    I completely agree that reading just isn’t most people’s preferred mode of getting information or stories, and that it’s great we live in an age when the oral and visual (now via technology) are returning to primacy. It does seem to be how most people are wired. This is true even though reading is what I, an INFJ, like best. Since I need to read every day to connect to ideas and authors like old friends, and reading and writing are my favorite ways to connect to others, I didn’t understand that reading isn’t everything until I’d had my 3 kids, all sensing.

    Now I think what is fundamental to most of us is stories, and I’ve become a great oral story teller. Most people seem to like to think in narrative, a story that has a structure and creates meaning out of apparently random experiences. So I focus on that in my writing and in my night-time story telling for my children.

    I do also read lots of great books aloud to my kids, with voices and plenty of drama. I want them to know the stories, since I think they help us understand the world. I don’t worry about whether they read, and I save my book fetish for those few other NFs and NTs out there.

  10. Jen
    Jen says:

    “I tell him people who love to read generally do not love to perform music.”

    Anecdotally, this has not been my experience. I suspect that like anything else, some musicians love to read, whereas others do not. I was an early reader (before 3 years) and an even earlier singer (shortly after I learned to talk). Both remain huge parts of my life. My job requires me to read, I read a variety of fiction and non-fiction for fun on my own time, and I perform in two high-level choirs and study voice. Many of my fellow choristers and musician friends are avid readers. Others are not. *shrugs* People are interesting, aren’t they?

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        If you look at the history of classical music, the composers are N’s and the soloists are S’s. And the people who play instruments and are not soloists are seen as blue collar workers.

        (Fascinating reading, by the way – how most performing musicians were seen as blue collar workers until very recently.)


  11. Blackwalnut
    Blackwalnut says:

    what sort of graduate program did you attend that required you to pass tests about literature? Most grad programs that I am familiar with — at least in the humanities — require discussion seminars, papers, and presentations.

    And if you are talking about Literature in the sense of great writing, why would you want to enroll in a grad school program in literature and then skip most of the reading?

  12. redrock
    redrock says:

    our brains are pretty phantastic in the way they allow us to read. It is a decisively human ability and without reading and writing we would still live in caves (or close to caves). Reading is one of the fastest ways to acquire information (apart from the neural link some people are working on), and there are a lot of things which are not tactile and cannot be demonstrated in video or visually. Whether one gets pleasure out of reading is an entirely different question.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      I think pleasure should be separated from the discussion.

      If we ran around only doing feel-good things I’m not sure how far we’d get as a society.

      Reading is harder for some than others. It’s a great way to find information. It’s necessary in the real world and in professions. I don’t think it’s wise to force reading, but I don’t think it is a harmful thing to do or learn. It’s definetely not a waste of time. People read what is relevant to them.

      • Melissa
        Melissa says:

        You know… some of us actually enjoy working. And solving problems, and being there for our loved ones.

        And if what you’re doing isn’t pleasurable, satisfying, or rewarding, why are you doing it?

  13. Meg
    Meg says:

    oh the smug parents. The worst part of parenting is having to deal with other parents. I learned early that I was at the bottom of the parent heap when my 1st grader couldn’t read. She also hadn’t lost any teeth and was (gasp) not tall. Bam! I lost.

    A great example of smug parents can be found in the comment section of the article I Hate Hearing About Your Gifted Child. Don’t the gifted parents have their own forums? Why do they have to spout off in the comment section where parents of non-gifted children went for a reprieve.

    My child is a non reader. Would I love to see her pick up a book for pleasure? Sure! You win. You have the reader! But please, let us have a moment where we take a breath and realize that being a non reader is not a fatal flaw.

  14. June
    June says:

    I can read but I choose not to read a lot of novels. I mean to say that I am not an avid reader. I don’t find anything unusual about that but I meet a lot of avid readers who are really upset that I don’t share their adulation of reading! One woman told me that she felt sorry for me! What is that? I have read a lot in my younger years but now I have other pastimes that I enjoy much more, like playing several musical instruments. I feel that I am not boring or unintelligent or I imaginative but that is what I feel I am labelled with as soon as it is revealed that I choose not to read. I think avid readers come across as snobby and condescending toward me. They also say but what do you do, stare at the walls or watch tv all the time? Um, if they can’t think of anything else to do besides reading to pass the time then I suggest they are the ones who we should feel sorry for. One f my acquaintances would rather read than see people. She hates the phone or the doorbell ringing cos it interrupts her reading! Consequently, I leave her alone with her books.

  15. Jared Allen
    Jared Allen says:

    You can’t “learn by seeing and doing” about the founding fathers. Perhaps before a person goes to Japan the person should read about the culture instead of simply showing up and represent our country like a fat american pig? Ooohhh, it’s ok, you don’t LIKE to read so it validates your laziness and instant gratification lifestyle. Guess what? JUST BECAUSE YOU DON’T LIKE SOMETHING DOESN’T MEAN YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO IT. I would love to eat fast food, not go to my job, watch T.V., and be financially irresponsible, BUT YOU CAN’T DO THAT OR YOU WILL BE AN IDIOT!

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