I’d Rather Read Than Get Stuck In The Eye With A Pin. I’d Rather Read Than Sit On Top Of A Volcano Bubbling With Lava. I’d Rather Read Than Babysit My Little Brother. I’d Rather Read Than Eat Fried Liver. I’d Rather Read Than Smear Myself With Blackberry Jam And Sit On An Anthill.

May 15, 2010

People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.
• Logan Pearsall Smith

It always surprises me that so many people don’t like to read. Reading has been an escape and an ongoing comfort to me just about my entire life. Yet as many of my students have told me, reading is less than pleasurable for them. They struggle with making meaning from letters on the page, and their struggle saps the joy from the process. The “I’d Rather Read Than” question I used to ask was a twist on another question that helped me get to know them better: “I would rather _________ than read.” I’ve saved many of their creative answers to both.

Part of the problem for older students is that most of the reading they’ve been asked to do in school is dull. When you’re small, it’s repetitive too, designed to help you learn to read, but still dull and often boring. Hooking students on reading requires that they encounter words that are fun, playful, interesting, and meaningful, yet as students get older, the books often get even duller to the as-yet-undeveloped literary palate of adolescents.

I had a colleague in the English department when I was teaching high school who had a bulletin board that said “Read the Good Books First.” It was filled with covers of Great Books. If you were in her class, you could not choose your freetime reading. You had to choose from an approved list designed to improve cultural literacy and uplift the mind. There’s nothing wrong with these goals, but they don’t necessarily encourage a love of reading.

Junk food for the brain is what she called most of the books in my classroom where I had a huge library of paperback romances, mysteries, westerns, science fiction, and other books she called useless and pointless and a waste of time. (I had sets of discarded encyclopedias too—you’d be surprised how many students liked to sit and browse through them.)

The poet Walt Whitman probably would have agreed with her. He decried the burgeoning of mass-produced reading in an article in the Brooklyn Daily Times in 1857, writing, “Who will underrate the influence of loose popular literature in debauching the popular mind?” Mea culpa. I have corrupted many readers, leading them astray into the fields of interesting reading, hoping that something they encounter there will inspire a habit that will become a lifelong joy.

What do you like to read? What do you wish you liked to read? If you were answering the question, “ I would rather read than_____________,” what would you say?

You should only read what is truly good or what is frankly bad.
• Gertrude Stein



  1. “I would rather read than…” do just about anything. I, too, encourage reading of any kind. My son has never been much of a reader, but in the 5th grade, he fell in love with the Goosebumps series by R. L. Stine. Not great literature, but I was thrilled to see him excited about reading anything. He reads now, mostly research for papers for his Master’s Degree in Bio-Archaeology. He begins working toward his doctorate this fall. I don’t think he was too badly corrupted!

    • Me too! I am addicted to reading. I will read anything–shampoo bottles, cereal boxes, junk mail, and definitely books than many people would consider trash. I read the serious stuff too, but my brain needs relaxation and reading always does it. My demonstration unit for children’s/adolescent literature courses I teach is called “Yuckology 101: Vile and Disgusting Literacy Materials for Children of All Ages” and R.L. Stine is definitely part of it. I managed to get a doctorate while doing both serious and silly reading, so I hope your son will be able to too! W-OZ

  2. Hi Zinn–Let me know when your next Yuckology 101 course is being offered…. Thanks for your great presentation in the Oregon Writers Project the other day. Right now, I’m thinking more about reading because I’ll be teaching in the summer school in White City the next two weeks. I love the way you turned the tables with your “I would rather read than” quotes. I think I’ll use that to get acquainted with my summer students.

  3. It was wonderful to see you, David. I’m writing this from McDonald’s where I’m quickly checking email again (they run you out if you sit here too long and I’m not willing to purchase enough here to buy very much time!).

    I’d love to hear what your students come up with. W-OZ

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