Being a good reader is overrated

Romon Todo, Glass Filled Books

Most of the “bad readers” are boys. This makes sense because most of the “bad dodgeball players” are girls. We don’t get up in arms about how girls don’t like dodgeball. Do we get tutors for the girls to tell them how to aim for the head while pretending not to be aiming for the head?

No. The answer is no, of course. Yet we make boys stay inside and read books when they don’t want to.

So look. Just forget it. Here’s a reading test to give your son:

For third-grade boys: Can he read enough to play video games?

For seventh-grade boys: Has he already found his favorite type of porn online?

If you answered “yes” to either question then your son is doing fine. Here’s why:

Being a bad reader is common among high performers. 
People with dyslexia think differently. And people who make a lot of money think differently. So it should come as no surprise that a lot of high performers in business have dyslexia. So parents of typical kids can relax about the reading. Obviously business does not require that people be good readers, but rather good listeners and good thinkers.

Most people don’t read.
That’s right. Most S types don’t read. Or, if they do read, it’s only related to the field they are in. And no matter what your field, it’s easy reading if you are always reading the same type of material. So most people do only easy reading. The hard reading is stuff you are not used to reading: reading outside your field, outside of your own historical context, etc. The point is that if half the world is not really reading then you don’t need to be a great reader to have a great life.

Novels are overrated.
No college exam tests your ability to get through a novel. You don’t have to read more than a few paragraphs to take the SAT II test for English or the AP test for English. And certainly no novel-length material is required for other tests.

So why bother reading novels? They are long and boring and are important only in terms of historical context. The first author to do blah blah is usually why a book is famous. Or if it’s their prose that’s so great, then you can give a couple of pages a whirl. If it’s plot and character development that’s so crucial, then read a short story.

Really. I taught English at the college level. I’m telling you. Novels are not more important than short stories and short stories are so much easier and faster to read.

Try visuals instead.
Graphic novels display plot and character development just as well as a 1,000-page novel does. And paintings show you point of view as well as a first-person narrator. If you want to learn about dialogue, you can read Macbeth, a play written in old English that is very slow reading. Or you can read I Really Hate My Job, a book written in texts that is super-fast reading.

You don’t need to read in order to write.
Because if your writing sounds like you read, then it should be because you’re a reader. Why bother sounding like you’re someone you’re not? Besides, lots of people have jobs that require little reading and little writing, so who cares if they don’t write well?

For example, I’m fine if my developer can’t write a good email, because any developer who has to send me a lot of emails is going to get sick of working with me anyway. Another example: poker players. They’re geniuses and they make a lot of money, but they are not reading Crime and Punishment. They are people who like games and problem solving, not curling up on the sofa reading about morality.

Obsessing over reading is myopic. Learning by doing is just as important. So next time you want to foist a book on someone, read it yourself and be grateful that person is not throwing a dodgeball at you.

20 replies
  1. Cáit
    Cáit says:

    I love this except for that one part.
    My pet peeve: people who brag they and/or their children are/were “voracious”
    readers. Like get a thesaurus.
    My sister is an ISFP. She has never read a book in her life. But she makes beautiful scrapbooks…and sweaters…and pies…and plays the flute and guitar…

    Worst “I was a voracious reader” offender: the well trained mind fraud lady.

  2. Catherine Thiemann
    Catherine Thiemann says:

    Hilarious perspective on how to know if your son is reading well enough!
    My son read almost no serious literature during our four years of home schooling, but he read enough online to be full informed of current events, with strong opinions, on some policy topics knowing more than his parents. He read enough graphic novels to form an intense interest in Japanese language & culture, and he’s now learning Japanese with the goal of studying abroad. When kids are allowed to read (or not) things that interest them, the learning happens naturally.

  3. Isabelle
    Isabelle says:

    ” So next time you want to foist a book on someone, read it yourself and be grateful that person is not throwing a dodgeball at you.”

    So much this.

    If only I could have spent all those 12 years of gym class sitting in the corner reading a book… I could be so much more well-read than I am with my mediocre public school education. Forcing people to do something (anything!) isn’t going to make them like it, much less learn in a meaningful way. Dodgeball was traumatic for me and I got in trouble for hiding a book under my desk and reading while the teacher was talking about boring crap.

  4. Adrianne
    Adrianne says:

    I like the mention of visuals. I’ve started working on a side project in cartooning and illustration – partly because I believe many ideas are better communicated with a combination of text and visual elements. Such a timely post for me!

  5. Caroline
    Caroline says:

    My first-grade daughter and I recently had an argument over if bullying is when boys hit you in the face at dodge ball. I tried to say they aren’t intending to do it and that generally she’s well-liked. She tried to explain they intend to appear not intentional about aiming for the head.I found myself thinking why in the world do they play this game and even split boys against girls.

  6. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I know I went into homeschooling my son with the preconception that the difference between children who were steady readers of fiction and those who weren’t was significant. I was a constant reader as a child – all I wanted was to be left alone so I could read a book – and my trajectory was different from that of my peers, so I assumed a connection.

    I think my son has never, in twelve years, read a novel that wasn’t ‘assigned’ for a class or a book group. Sometimes it will be the first book in a series and he will say he loved it but he won’t read the second. In the years he has been a child I’ve read three times as much YA fiction as he has. Fiction is purely instrumental for him.

    I gave up on my preconceptions eventually. What my son chooses to read is, as PT says about S types, typically related to his field. He would read National Geographic and Scientific American cover to cover each month, and has read a lot of journal articles about bacteria and cancer. When he gets a scientific interest (e.g. relativity), he immediately googles it, and if that doesn’t suffice he checks out a couple of library books on the topic.

    Despite the relative lack of reading non-fiction, his test scores for reading and verbal reasoning are consistently two standard deviations above average. That demonstrated to me that non-fiction is relatively unimportant for building vocabulary and verbal reasoning.

    Although I learned to read and write at three, my daughter still only knows how to read and write a handful of words at six. I am unconcerned and am happy she goes to a relatively enlightened school where teachers are allowed flexibility to accommodate different learning styles and schedules. I don’t imagine this has any bearing whatsoever on whether she will turn out to be an enthusiastic reader of fiction when she gets older, let alone on her intelligence or future success.

  7. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I was an early reader too, and I never liked the assigned reading I got in school and to this day still prefer British literature over American literature.

    My kids’ reading abilities and preferences are varied. My oldest preferred graphic novels until the age of 9. Since then she has been reading anything she can by Erin Hunter. Otherwise she prefers engineering and science magazines.

    My middle started reading at 2 or 3 and now at 7 reads anything she picks up. As a homeschooler this makes everything so much easier because they are so much more independent when they can read.

    My youngest has serious speech issues that interferes with not only learning to read, but even just identifying letters and making the appropriate sounds are huge challenges for her. Yet, she is great with numbers and was adding and subtracting organically at age 4. She’s also very good with memory games and puzzles, navigating new areas, and more importantly getting everyone to love her instantly. Very much an ENTJ.

    I do think reading is overrated, except for the part where it lends itself to self-directed learning and being independent. Reading for me was/is a huge part of my life, since I think in pictures it is a way to discover new worlds, and make new “friends”.

  8. Al
    Al says:

    Teaching our kids to read IS important.

    But it is our efforts to assess their reading ability that is not so important.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s a good waynto put it – that assessment is not so important. I think that might be true for everything.

      The only reason we really need assessments is so colleges can sort kids based on how much time and effort kids want to put into critical thinking. The tops colleges take the top critical thinkers – or at least try to.

      But such a small percentage of humans genuinely take pleasure in critical thinking that the across-the-board assessment is absurd.


  9. Jess
    Jess says:

    Really glad to see your posts more often, PT. Thanks for pushing me out of my comfortable assumptions and making me question everything!

    We have been homeschooling for 4 years now and this year I am struggling with the relevance of many subjects versus nurturing the individual and his/her future. What does he need for his adult journey? Who has those answers?

  10. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    This should also be a career post, methinks.

    I’m an assistant and I’ve realized that nearly everyone I answer to, except one guy who I think is OCD, never reads any of my emails (hence your INFJ course being syper helpful).

    People like that at the top of their career ladders pay people like me to read FOR them.

  11. Cáit
    Cáit says:

    I just remembered one of my favorite anti education examples. I saw a series of interviews once with people who had known the Clancy brothers family where they grew up. And they said they were the worst students, worst ever, cut school to go up in the attic and make music.
    Well what a gift to the world that they did! At the time Irish folk music was associated with poverty and had low esteem. When they performed for president Kennedy that really helped turn things around.

  12. Hope
    Hope says:

    I initially wanted to be offended by this, as a non-stop reader. But I thought about it, and virtually none of the men in my life are big readers. My father (god rest his soul) never read a complete book until he was in his 60’s and actually asked my mother (who recommended a novel to him after they lost a child) “why would you read something that someone made up?”

  13. jessica
    jessica says:

    I read that most intelligent people do read, but they read for pleasure not for skills or self improvement.

    That said, I think having good reading and comprehension skills is not a good thing and is something I encourage. It’s another form of communication.

    I read a lot of varied material, my husband reads purely for pleasure, my MIL same, my kids like to read and they are boys, my brother is a strict skill reader (programming books), my father reads 3 hours a day mostly on subjects of tech and AI. In fact, I don’t know many people that do not read quite a bit and the people I’ve listed are very high achievers. Maybe they’re the outlier and not the norm.

  14. Rachel Crossen
    Rachel Crossen says:

    Have you seen the English AP test? The esssy questions are from a list of about 30-50 books they expect your kid to have read by 12 grade. Serious novels. You can’t do well in that test without having read and really understood a lot of serious literature.

Comments are closed.