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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Here We Go Again

Reading Declining, Even Harry Can’t Help, Woe Is Me

Here we are racing to the greatest single book sale in publishing history, and the New York Times asks us to pause and question — is Harry really helping. "Potter Has Limited Effect on Reading Habits," the article on July 11 announced. According to stats quoted in the article, the older kids get, the less they read for pleasure. Dana Gioia of the National Endowment for the Arts weighed in on exactly that point. And, once again, missed the point. Because, as (to the Times’s credit, they reported), Michael Kamil, a professor of education at Stanford, “I don’t want to deny that you should be reading stories and literature. But we’ve overemphasized it." Instead, he told the reporter, children need to learn to read for information.

And that gets to the point the article missed — reading for information is a form of pleasure. Reading for information in assigned classroom reading could also be a form of pleasure — not just by using historical fiction, or novels about scientists, but simply by using nonfiction books that assume gaining information is a pleasurable activity. Thinking is pleasurable. Learning new things is pleasurable. Figuring out how to do stuff is pleasurable. Our best students are swamped with assigned reading — another fact the supposed decline in reading stats miss. The crucial thing we need is better nonfiction in the schools, not to wring our hands over the fate of fiction.

We have simply phrased the problem the wrong way — not pleasure reading versus school, but better school reading — that is to say, better nonfiction.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    How could one book–or seven–solve the problem of getting more students to read for pleasure? Marc, you are definitely right in two important ways: (1) We need to be celebrating the pleasure that readers derive from learning rather than assuming that learning is dull, and (2) We need to be providing access to quality nonfiction. Not surprisingly, kids and teachers like good books. Several years ago, Susan Scherer, principal of PS 205 in Queens asked me to work as a consultant in her school and told me she would order the books I wanted to use. When we ordered books like WHEN MARION SANG, CHILDREN OF THE DUST BOWL, I AM AN AMERICAN, ORPHAN TRAIN RIDER, and more, the kids and teachers read these books for the pleasure of learning. It was glorious.