when does intellectual curiosity stop?

From bookstatistics.com:

  • 58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school.
  • 42% of college graduates never read another book.
  • 80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year.
  • 70% of US adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

If you’re like me, you read that with a chill running down your spine. You read blogs, so you’re reading a lot.  You like reading.  You think other people ought to like to read.

One of my fondest childhood memories is reading “The Hobbit” along with my dad. We had a big illustrated edition – a lot of the cheesy Rankin-Bass stills, where Gollum looks like a frog – and he read it to me in installments.  I don’t remember how many times we read it or how old I was, but I read “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (on my own) before 3rd grade, so it was probably when I was 5 or 6.  But my point is simple:  I remember being almost insanely excited with the idea that another chapter was going to unfold.  A picture would be painted in my mind – by me – and the next day another picture would be drawn.  I would go to sleep in the bunk bed I shared with my brother, my mind filled with trolls and dragons and dwarves.

I read to my son a lot, and have done so since he was born. I’ve tried to with my daughter, with less success since every time I start to read to her my son runs over and insists on sharing (which means reading to HIM).  But I think both kids have an early love of reading.  I don’t read to them for any other reason than a long-term attempt to inspire a love of books in them.  Books have been some of my truest and dearest friends throughout my life, and I think children need to learn early in their lives that a life can revolve around books without TV, video games or the internet.

Bubelah and I talked about intellectual curiousity this weekend, in relation to things I’ve said about a college education. I argue that for most people, college is a crutch.  Their intellectual curiosity is sated by four years in college – they read, they take interesting courses, they graduate and 58% of them never read a book again.  Bubelah thinks college is necessary for growth, and that college forces people to expand in ways they never would on their own.   I say that college can only assist growth – intellectual curiousity, if someone has it, won’t stop with college.  We didn’t decide the argument, but we did agree that there is no excuse to quit learning, ever.

I know my coworkers are weirded out that I sit and read a book in the office pantry while I eat lunch. They are doubly weirded out that I read history, or graphic novels, or fantasy/sci-fi.  The idea of reading anything other than a newspaper or magazine seems trivial or immature to them.   Even though I am not enamored of either of the major parties in the US, every time I hear someone (and it’s usually a Democrat) mocked for being “an intellectual” or “an elitist” I cringe.  When did intellectual prowess or a curiosity about life become a characteristic to be mocked?  I care about history, space exploration, politics, ethics, literature.  I’m a pointy-headed intellectual – and I drink beer and love pro football, too.

Reading is the gateway to knowledge. Of course you can gain knowledge through experience, or discussion, or other avenues – but reading is so freely available and simple that it can only be deemed a great failure of any society that doesn’t encourage it as a core virtue.  I’d like to see America become a place that’s proud of intellectual curiosity, but too often intellectual curiosity is mocked and belittled by people whose idea of culture is determined by TV executives.  Knowledge should be a lifelong goal, not something satisfied by four years in college.

36 comments

  • To read books, you need an imagination to see that picture that the author has painted for you. The story excites you to where you can see the characters and interact with them yourself in your mind. I guess I'd argue that this was always a less common skill; reading was an elitist pasttime in much of our history (although I suspect that I'm using elitist in a different way than noted in your post). Today, of course, the other diversions are greater, with TV/DVRs, Internet, video games, and so on.

    I think college was important for me. I grew up in a household that afforded me few social skills and no world view. Half of the men in my high school graduating class went to work in the local steel mill, as their fathers did. College was a way out, and it was a way to begin growing a world view. I'm not sure I had it in my to do that on my own.

    I enjoyed the post. Thank you.

    • Curmudgeon, I guess what I'd ask was whether going to college was the only way out. In 99% of cases it's probably the most obvious way out a small town, or a less-intellectually-curious environment. But the opposite certainly isn't true – living in a highly educated city, working with (almost solely) college graduates I'm amazed that fewer people “got out.” Many of the corporate workers I work might be less intellectually curious about the world around them than your average steel mill worker…

    • Interesting question. There may be no correlation between education and intellectual curiosity. I could have been a steelworker (though not any more; the mill has long since closed) that frequented the local Carnegie Public Library (as I did as a teen).

      But there is a very specific culture in a company town, too (even today; try the Walmart HQ). You can't grow intellectually very much unless you can break out of that and live other cultures.

  • I generally think that I don't read that many books. But I do love to read, I can't imagine life without books.

    I don't get how reading a book is immature, although I do think that reading a newspaper is also fun, and of course blogs are great. Don't these people crave a longer, more detailed piece of writing to get their teeth into?

    I also can't imagine not being curious about the world. Guess I'm a born/made reader and that's not likely to change.

  • Whenever I find myself in a rut, be it creative or otherwise, I usually find that I haven't been reading as much as usual. So that's a clear sign right there of how reading affects me.

  • I'm not so sure that intellectual curiosity begins to wane as one gets older. I think that modern day media has taken a big bite out of the market share that books once had. I believe that engaging in intelligent, interactive discussions with others online is just as healthy for stimulating intellectual curiosity as reading a book.

    • WealthBoy (and plonkee), I couldn't agree more – books certainly don't have a monopoly on being “smart.” I've read some amazing stuff online, and I've read thought-provoking newspaper articles. I think staying open to new media is a key sign of intellectual curiosity, too. Many of these same people who think reading a book is “too hard” are certainly never going to be dipping their toes into Digg, or blogs, or twitter. Why? Is it genetic, or does education sometimes beat the intellectual curiosity out of brains? I'm not sure…

  • Those are indeed some scary statistics! I love reading too. I've easily read more outside of school than in it. It's great that you share your love of reading with your kids. I think that will have a positive influence later on in their lives.

    We've become something of a society that is proud of it's ignorance. We don't need no books, we're “keeping it real!” As Chris Rock said “Real ignorant!”

    Maybe it has something to do with the school system? It's so driven by standardized tests that the joy of learning and imagination are driven out of a child. When they finally finish school they don't want to associate with anything that may seem scholarly.

    • FFB, I think you've hit on something worries me a lot – maybe it's the schools. Part of it, as Curmudgeon mentioned, is just that there is a lot of competition for the average person's attention these days. Thomas Jefferson might have plopped down on the couch for an occasional guilty peek at “CSI” (one of the most godawful shows I have ever seen) if he had had the choice. But our school systems definitely don't seem to encourage reading for fun – reading is viewed as a testing skill, something to master and then move on. In my schools growing up, we were asked to read FOR FUN during recess, and we did. It took until high school, when I was forced to read and then be graded on “comprehension” that my burning desire to read started fading. Fortunately I recovered it, but I had a few English “teachers” who did their best to make me hate the printed word.

  • I was a bit alarmed when I saw those statistics. As far as I know, my mother (a physician) has not picked up a book since she was 16. She actually dismissed my love of reading when I was a kid – in her mind, it was “escapism”. Of course, it didn't help that I wasn't actually grounded in reality when I was younger. Wait, I'm still not. 🙂
    In any case, I don't know if people who don't read lack intellectual curiosity. I think there can be other ways to satisfy that need (my mother is experiential, for example). But I do think they lack an ability to think in the abstract and the potential. It would be interesting to see the MBTI results for readers and nonreaders.

    • My sister is a doctor as well and she hasn't read a book or any kind of literature that is not related to her medical field, probably, in a few years now. She has not time or desire, or both…

  • Wow, those are startling statistics (did you know that 82.7 percent of all statistics are made up? I made that up)! My wife and I, too, read to our very young children, and have done so since before they were born. I guess we like to read and want to inspire the same in our kids.

  • I don't think you're going to get much argument from your subscribers – you may as well have suggested that wine isn't one of the major food groups. In my case I have a separate del.icio.us account for my capsule book reviews 🙂

    Mind you, my husband L has never read for fun (English isn't is first language so he gets frustrated) but he seems an order of magnitude more curious than his well-read missus. He just prefers the interview approach and the experience approach to the read about it approach.

    There are other stats I've seen published recently in Irish media (although I think they're american) which show that women read in free time much, much more than men for most age groups. That's pretty consistent with my experience.

    • Since English is a second language for me as well, some books are not pleasant to read. But if a book well written and the language is simple, I love it. I would say that I read more English books than Russians overall.

  • I am glad that Steve and I both equally love to read. Not the same books and the same genre, but nevertheless. Now our son who is 2.5 y.o. loves books. He can pick up a book that we read to him 3000 times and recite by memory as if he is reading. Sometimes he gets so quiet when he is flipping through a book and has this intense look on his face. It's cute. I hope he doesn't grow out of it. My love of books, I believe, came from my father. My mom is not big on reading books, mostly magazines. But because of my dad she reads too. She would never go to a library for a new book unless my dad brings a whole bunch home.

    • I love that intense look that young kids get when they are absorbing something and figuring out how it works. I've seen my son get that staring at a rock. I hope my kids always get that look! I think it's that type of curiosity that's missing in a lot of people these days.

  • I also cringe at the mocking of a political candidate for being “elitist” or “too intellectual”–as if being smart and accomplished is a bad thing. And the answer to the retort that the other candidate is elitist in his own way for owning so many houses he can't count? That's the American way–it's part of the American Dream to make so much money you have so much stuff you can't even remember how much stuff you have. THAT we can relate to, but not being smart.

  • It really is scary to read those stats. What is the solution? Making reading fun by handing out free Amazon Kindle ebook readers to all graduates?

    When I read the part in your post about having your parents read the hobbit to you, and the lord of the rings trilogy – it mirrored my own experience. My mom and dad would read to me from those books (along with C.S. Lewis Narnia series) just about every night. I remember being giddy with anticipation waiting to hear the next chapter. I can only hope to have that same experience with my future children.

    • There is no solution. I'll be frank: we've had people who love to learn and people who hate to learn throughout history. Some people will never, ever be interested in learning unless dragged, kicking and screaming. It's not that big a deal, in a way. My biggest hope for my kids is that we (my wife, relatives, the schools) don't hinder any of their natural curiosity about the world, but if they are given every opportunity to love knowledge, but don't, in the end, what more could you do?

      Narnia's a great series, too (CS Lewis was a brilliant guy, AND wrote some great fiction).

  • I wonder if there's a connection between an early love of reading and a later life interest in PF?
    I, too, have early memories of reading The Hobbit, LoTR, Narnia and the Oz books.
    My wife and I are both avid readers, with extremely eclectic tastes, though I prefer SF and Fantasy above all. We read to our children all through their early years, and they both had good reading skills in school, but neither of them reads for pleasure now that they are adults, unfortunately. I think there's just too much competition for their attention that doesn't require a lot of imagination to visualize characters, scenery, etc.

  • In regards to what you said about intellectual curiosity, I thought of this: Whenever people talk about problems in the classroom, etc., my dad always says, “You can't stop a child from learning.” His point being, no matter what type of teacher your child has, no matter what sort of curriculum the school has, any child who wants to learn will learn–he/she will find a way to learn what they want to learn.

    (I grew up without television; my parents didn't have one. Trips to the library were AWESOME.)

  • A mind is a terrible thing to waste..

  • I'm a college drop out. i also like to think I am autodidact. I don't think my real education began until I quit school and started working in a book store. I am now far more curious about subjects that I was once bored with: History being a fine example. The older I get the more I read.

    I work for one of those big computer companies (I won't say which one) and only ever see 2-3 people out of the several thousand that I work with ever crack a book. I grew up thinking people read, but now I see that only a very small percentage read with any regularity and if my corporate microcosm bears any semblance to the society it exists within, almost nobody reads.

    Yesterday a guy came by my cube to make fun of the fact I was reading. he made the joke that he thought it was funny that I would sit around all these computers an read antiquated books. He made an effort to look at me as if there was something wrong with me.

    • Weird. Probably the same people who have the bumper stickers that say “My son can beat up your honor student.”

    • Vin, Curmudgeon: Good ones. Vin, that's EXACTLY what I was getting at – it's startling that people think reading a book is an effort or just weird…. I can't even get my brain around it, to be honest. And the kind of parent who would get that bumper sticker – well, I hope they are just a crazy cut-up comedian and not a psycho ass, but I suspect the worst…

  • Excellent article. I couldn't agree more. I would add that, information and education is the key to wealth.

  • I know exactly what you mean. My dad always told me to carry a book with you wherever you go. I read while waiting for appointments/meetings. I read during my lunch at the office. And i read during the last bit of my day before i go to sleep. reading for me is about learning and relaxing. I would be soo stressed if it were not for books. I especially love historical books and fantasy. Especially fantasy since i can go off to my own fantasy world and forget for a time all that is worrying me. Reading is skill that you never should stop on your path of life.

  • On one hand, a lack of intellectual curiousity is probably bad for a society since it means less innovation. On the other hand, it means less competition and more prosperity for those who are lifelong learners.

  • I think there is a solution… It's called reading to your kids. Habits that are developed early on have much more endurance.

  • I spend most days seeing the delight on young children's faces as they are either read to by an adult, or as they start to learn to read simple words themselves. Unfortunately, that passion for reading does fade in some people, and that, in my opinion, is a terrible shame.

  • Kudos!

    At the age of 22, and having finished a graduate degree and other certification classes, I still long to read and satisfy my intellectual curiosity. I always ask, “What about if this happens?” “What about if I do this?” So I turn to the library and read about topic.

    I've started reading since I was 2, and I have never looked back. Reading is a great passion of mine, and it is evidenced by the hundreds of books that I own and have read. Funny, how I can't remember a scene of a movie, but I can remember a chapter of a book. I've given up television during college to focus on my major ingredient to increase intellectual capabilities: reading.

    It's good that you started your children early in loving books. Although my parents never read a book to me or with me, they have provided me with books all throughout my life.

    I am saddened by the facts that you have given. People should read.

  • Scary but true. I read several books a week (thanks to reading speed & comprehension tests while growing up) and I can't imagine not doing it. I'm in the library picking up stacks & stacks every week.

    I think people don't read because of TV, no time. And I think you have to read so many bad books in college (I sure did) that is sort of ruins reading. I didn't read a book for a couple years after college.

    I'm not sure if reading to your children helps or not, can't hurt. My parents didn't read to me and I have been a voracious reader since I learned to read. DH's mom read books to him and he didn't used to like to read (he's getting into it now that we cancelled our cable and don't have TV).

  • My parents read to me and I grew to love reading and learning. I have began reading on my own as soon as I could and spent many a late night burning the midnight oil because I couldn't put down a book. “Just one more chapter” is a lie I have been telling myself for years! 😉

    Like some of the commenters in this thread, I don't think there is any one reason for these statistics, but a combination of many factors. Many school systems do primarily teach standardized tests, which destroys the creativity and passion for learning. And many people prefer to be fed by the TV for hours every night.

    But I also think that at some point in many people's lives, books became associated with the dread of an upcoming assignment or a test someone wasn't prepared for and people forgot about the magic that books contain.

    Personally, I would rather read a book than watch the latest Reality TV show or sitcom. A well-written book makes you part of the story, whereas TV requires little thought and less emotion.

  • College can make people think different thoughts, but only the curious will use those thoughts to think other thoughts. If someones does not read another book in their adult life, did their curiosity peak during college, or did it taper off long ago? When do some kids become clearly less curious than others? I don't know, but the difference in toddlers (and similarity to their parents) can be striking. If curiosity begins at home, then our current deficit is unsettling.

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  • I don't get how reading a book is immature, although I do think that reading a newspaper is also fun, and of course blogs are great. Don't these people crave a longer, more detailed piece of writing to get their teeth into?