Yesterday I wrote on perspective and how my own writing career has changed how I judge a book. One reader of my blog commented that we must keep reading, both to learn and to refuel. I certainly agree. Reading is key to writing. Extending that thought, both reading and writing are key to thinking, and we as a nation lose ground with each non-reader who graduates high school. By non-readers I don't mean people who can't read; I mean people who consistenly choose to do something else.
It's hard for teachers today to decide what students must read. The classics are of course wonderful examples of good writing, but modernists reject them as too formal, too difficult, and too removed from students' experience. Still we recognize a lowering of standards when we compare much of today's popular writing with classic works. We can experience the complex thoughts and sentences of past times in Hawthorne or Montaigne, and while we might wish that they said it more succinctly at times, their contemporaries grasped their meaning, revealing that they were probably better readers than most of us.
I don't advocate a return to complex sentences and flowery expression. But we need to recognize that developing intelligence requires practice with nuance of language, both in our own use and in understanding the expression of others. Reading expands a person's vocabulary as we make contextual guesses as to a word's meaning. It develops the reader's ability to remember facts. For example, a good mystery presents multiple possibilities for the solution. We must think as we read, look ahead, conjure likely scenarios, and form conclusions. Wow, thought! We judge motives, we understand motivation, we decide whom we like and whom we do not. Gee, comprehension. And we can apply what we've learned to real life, at least in a general sense. Readers who like noir probably have a different view of life than those who loves cozies, so that tells us something about ourselves and those we encounter. Cool, application to reality.
So what should people read to become educated? When I taught high school students I tried to give them choices about what they read because tastes vary widely. One student might check out Rebecca and return it the next day, finding it too slow, while another would claim it was the best book ever. That's okay. Preferences are just that: some love what others hate. My view is that any reading is good. Most people will move naturally to the level they're capable of, and teachers can help by offering careful choices that extend a student's skills.
In the end it doesn't matter what people choose to read, only that they read. When we encourage readers what we're actually building is thinkers, and those who think are the best hope for any society's future.