To be clear, these are not my words. Read on for the source.
For those of you unfamiliar with my professional path outside of the words on this blog, I have prioritized educating, training, and inspiring future leaders of America over Bourbon & Battles for the last year. I break that silence today for some reflection inspired by a single written comment from a student.
To get to know my newest group of students last week, I asked each of them to fill out a bio card. One of the pieces of information I asked for: favorite book. I mostly wanted to see what authors and titles inspired this cohort—military history and more military history abound, as did some classics, and more than one mention of 1984. Shamelessly, I also wanted to see if I could use their recommendations to add some more tomes to my “to-read” list. Turns out, I did.
But to my instant consternation, I received this answer on one bio card: “I do not read recreationally.”
Immediately, I felt like this young person needed some serious redirecting and counseling. President Harry S Truman is famously quoted as saying “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” Add that to the seemingly bottomless availability of “reading lists” and “book lists” from the top of the military all the way down to lowly blog outlets (mine included). To read such a comment from an individual selected to attend the world’s premier leadership institute took me aback.
Certainly an undergraduate education will force reading down cadets’ throats, whether they like it or not, but under what conditions does one simply not enjoy reading?
While not my first reaction, it was brought to my attention that perhaps this student read for personal or professional development, but did not consider reading as “recreational.” I would like to believe that, but the question was “favorite book,” which precluded any delineation between “types” of reading. Perhaps this young person simply didn’t have a “favorite” book. I would like to believe that also, but the cadet voluntarily wrote “I do not read recreationally” unprompted.
Okay, but perhaps young leaders can develop without books. What about podcasts, blogs, newspapers, and other forms of non-book media? While I am uncertain if this particular person consumes any of these media instead of books (something I will be sure to follow up on), are these forms adequate substitutes for the long-form, often in-depth writing found in books? Are books superior? My gut reaction to the latter question is yes! However, is that just a bias I’ve developed from decades of book reading, or is it perhaps a greater cultural bias found in the military officer corps?
The Rise of the Non-Reader
According to a Pew Research Center Survey in 2016, about a quarter of the entire American adult population had not read a book (to include audio or electronic) in the preceding 12 months. That same survey showed a disaggregation by socioeconomic variables, and those resulted as you might expect (more money, more reading; more education, more reading). But even the age group variable indicated that college-age Americans tend to read “for pleasure” more than other cohorts.
Perhaps more disturbing than the 26% of non-readers is the overall downward trend of reading in America. In a 2015 survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts literary reading is on the decline (as reported by The Washington Post):
Beyond this one case, given the increasingly challenging recruiting environment, can we expect more future military leaders to be non-readers? Do we have a professional mandate to correct those who identify as non-readers—those who “do not read recreationally” outside of a class assignment?
I chose not turn this blog post into an argument for the merits of reading books, because that argument has been made elsewhere. (I’ve even made the argument for more fiction in military professional reading right here on B&B.) But I do feel like it is important to contemplate the reasons why we encourage reading as military leaders. How would you convince a young leader that they should read for recreation?
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