Tuesday, May 25, 2010

University of Nevada study: Books in the home

On a recent visit to my parents, my dad and I walked over to the public library. While he went in search of the titles on his list, I wandered to the nearest shelf and scanned the rows of books for a volume thin enough to be read in entirety while I waited. My fingers found Anna Quindlen's memoir How Reading Changed My Life. I settled into a rocking chair, and read it through. I found many lines poignant enough to jot down in Notes on my iPhone to be transferred to my Moleskine of quotes; the measure of a worthy read. One such line that has stuck with me:
"I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves."

I've written before on the indispensability of books in my living space, but always from the standpoint of aesthetics, and maybe comfort. But a new 20-year study led by Mariah Evans, a University of Nevada associate professor of sociology and resource economics, declares that books in a family's home in fact correlate with more and better schooling for children. Some key findings, via Nevada News:
  • "Having books in the home is twice as important as the father’s education level."
  • "The difference between being raised in a bookless home compared to being raised in a home with a 500-book library has as great an effect on the level of education a child will attain as having parents who are barely literate (3 years of education) compared to having parents who have a university education (15 or 16 years of education)."
  • "Having as few as 20 books in the home still has a significant impact on propelling a child to a higher level of education, and the more books you add, the greater the benefit."
I am fortunate enough to have been raised in a bibliophilic family, with parents and aunts and uncles and cousins who love reading. My childhood home has bookshelves in multiple rooms stocked with volumes of every stripe, from beach-worthy creased paperbacks to a tired encyclopedia collection to a Shakespeare tome to dense non-fiction hardbacks whose very jacket descriptions are a mental strain. Visits to the library were regular, trips to the bookstore were standard. To this day one of the first questions I ask my dad, to catch up: "What are you reading?"

This study, entitled "Family scholarly culture and educational success", implies that my book-soaked environment would have been sufficient to fuel me for 17 years of academic success even if I weren't also so lucky as to have two college-educated parents whose intelligence motivated me to reach for the A. I would always wonder, "How do they know all these things?" whether it be how to flute a pie crust (okay, that was a recent one) or how to sew a button or what 'encomium' means or how airplanes fly. My parents are naturally smart, yes, but their affinity for reading was also a key factor in my awed perception of their intellect.

Edan Lepucki, blogger on The Millions, has the same notion of books-on-display connoting something meaningful about their owner:
"If a stranger came over to our apartment, and there weren’t books, or–oh no!–not enough books, what would that say about me and Patrick? If my copy of Handmaid’s Tale or his copy of The Power Broker weren’t on display, how would anyone understand us? Some people have a cross in their home, or a mezuzah on their doorjamb. I’ve got nine books by Vladimir Nabokov."
Evans's data are from 70,000 cases from 27 nations. Her conclusions are wide-reaching geographically, but also metaphorically in the examination of the current state of the book world. I don't imagine that the breadth of a parent's eReader library would have the same impact on a child as a visible, touchable 500-book library. I would have had no idea whether my parents were reading email, or browsing The New York Times, or scrolling through New Yorker cartoons, or reading a digital version of Paradise Lost.

The takeaway? Go buy a book. And put it on a shelf.

1 comment:

  1. My mom habitually insists on the importance of having books in a room. She says the greatest thing my dad ever did for her was get her a set of Leon Uris books, and she used to get one beautiful hard cover book each month of all famous pieces of literature. Our library was the center of most family time. Her main concern for her new house is what type of bookshelves to get and where to put all her different books. She'll love this post.