Reading for pleasure poor indicator of student passivity

This story ran in USA TODAY College on February 14, 2013.

This story ran in USA TODAY College on February 14, 2013.

After hours of classes, clubs and studying, college students across the country usually end a long day curled up with a book.

But for most of them, these books tend to be to complete required reading.

Reading for pleasure is a struggle for most undergraduates, but it has proven to be beneficial and possible. Many universities have launched successful book clubs and common reading programs to encourage reading outside the classroom.

While many students reported being unable to read for fun, Barbara Fister and Julie Gilbert, academic librarians at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, said this trend hardly represents a bigger problem.

“There’s a sense that people in general aren’t reading as much as they once did, but that needs to be taken with a grain of salt,” Gilbert said. “There’s a perception that today’s undergraduates are all about screens, but in general, at least among our students, reading is very much a valued pastime, even if it’s one that gets sidelined.”

Fister and Gilbert’s 2009 study of undergraduate reading habits found just that. Students reported that they have so much homework on top of extracurricular activities and working out that there aren’t enough hours in the day to read — but they wish there were.

Although many students find reading for pleasure impossible, some schools boast flourishing book clubs. Texas Tech University receives between 25-35 students a month at its honors college book group, according to coordinator Sarah Timmons.

Those at Texas Tech said coming to the book club offers a chance to meet likeminded students and talk about literature. Senior Kimberly Lundberg said she learns to empathize with the characters she encounters, gaining a wider perspective of society she may not get from assigned reading.

According to Fister, this is typical for casual readers.

“Research from psychologists suggests that reading fiction and narrative non-fiction is positively correlated with empathy, with Keith Oatley suggesting that reading acts as a simulation and gives people practice understanding other people’s experiences,” she said.

She also added that Psychologist Victor Nell found that getting lost in a book actually involved readers in complex neurological work. As a result, college students can benefit academically from readings unrelated to class.

For Matthew Levinton, a 2012 graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, reading for pleasure does not have to be unrelated to school. He founded the Jefferson Book Club in 2009 to provide students the opportunity to interact with historically famous texts outside the classroom. Levinton said the group’s success is partially a result of its specificity.

“You certainly want to have a theme that you’re working with,” he said. “All the texts we read are the foundations of more contemporary writing.”

Common reading programs also try to make reading for pleasure a somewhat structured experience. Karen Weathermon, co-director of the program at Washington State University said participation is high because it incorporates many disciplines and draws on coursework already in place.

While some student reading initiatives are thriving, many fail. Kevin Ferguson, acquisitions coordinator at the University of San Francisco is trying to get students to participate in the university’s book group, which currently has only faculty and staff members. Ferguson said he believes book groups are different in the way they look at texts, and students could get more out of literature by looking at it outside the classroom.

This isn’t surprising to Liz Kramer, a sophomore at Gustavus Adolphus College.

“There’s definitely a couple of books on my desk that I’ve been wanting to read for a while now, and it has taken too much time to get around to them, and I feel like I could have gotten more out of them,” she said.

Despite this appreciation for reading for pleasure, the fact remains that for many students, the desire is there, but the time is not. But according to a Pew study, this doesn’t determine whether college students will continue to shirk reading after graduation.

“So far as we can tell, there is no reason to put books or readers on the endangered species list,” Fister said.

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