Our Eleventh Nerdversary: Where Have All the Nerdy Readers Gone? by Donalyn Miller
I don’t ask people, “How’s it going?” anymore. The pre-pandemic response, a reflexive, “It’s fine,” doesn’t really cut it these days. People have something to say about how it’s really going. No one is fine.
The challenges of the past three years have carved us down. Parts are sharper. Parts are missing. Some parts are worn away. No one is the same. The changes are too deep. We’re not going back. Our lives are different now. Our reading lives are different, too.
How’s your reading life these days? Is that an easier question to answer? When was the last time you checked in with yourself as a reader?
During these pandemic times, I’ve talked with thousands of readers of all ages. Their reading lives are all over the place. Some folks are reading more than ever. They’ve discovered audiobooks during the pandemic. They’re visiting their neighborhood library branch more often. They’re reading with an online book club. I also listen to many readers who have wandered away from reading and feel lost. They cannot focus. They cannot finish a book. They’re unable to keep their reading momentum going. In between these extremes are a lot of readers who have changed their reading habits—for better or worse.
Wherever you’re in your reading life, I can promise that you’re not alone.
Reading for personal enjoyment may seem like a selfish concern compared with more pressing needs. After all, the world is burning down. We have legitimate excuses for not reading. Our cognitive energy and mental flexibility are shot. For some readers, grief has damaged our ability to read. Many readers have just expanded their media consumption in other formats–binge watching Star Wars and the MCU, listening to podcasts and watching Tik Tok videos. Literacy doesn’t begin and end with reading books. What counts as reading continues to evolve.
As a country, we’re reading fewer books. Although 17% of US adults reported they did not finish reading a book in 2021, that wasn’t a significant change from the past. Readers are not abandoning reading altogether. However, only 27% of US adults reported reading ten or more books in 2021, an 8% decline since 2016. There is no magic number of books you need to read to call yourself a reader, but this drop in reading volume indicates that people who once enjoyed reading are enjoying it less.
Like many of you, I’m reading differently. I read less. We moved this year and most of our books were donated or stored. Endlessly driving between Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio, Don and I listened to a lot of audiobooks and podcasts. We handpicked an assortment of books and journals to take to our new place—a mix of unread books, professional materials, Don’s extensive comic and cookbook collections, and treasured favorites. Instead of reading the books I packed, I’ve found an independent bookstore within walking distance and bought more books. I’ve read a few and added the rest to the hoard. Now that we have overflowing bookshelves again, I finally feel moved in.
Readers must live here. I better get reading. This is the way.
I don’t think I realized how much my reading has changed until the “Best Books” lists started appearing. How did I miss so many? These lists are helping me prioritize the books I’ve collected, but not read. I’ve moved a lot of books around—shifting books from the bottom of the pile to the top of my to-read list. I will read some. Other books will just live with us until I find another reader for them.
If a meaningful part of your identity stems from your reading life, it can be unsettling to lose your reading interest. It’s a crisis of faith. I’ve been a reader for fifty years. My relationship with books has endured through every peak and valley. Who am I if I don’t read? I honestly don’t know.
A colleague told me recently that she felt like a reading imposter. She spends every day encouraging her 5th grade students to read, but she hasn’t read a book in months. She cannot settle into reading and finds it hard to finish the books she starts. How can she promote reading to her students when she’s not reading? Chatting about our rocky reading lives, the two of us found some comfort in knowing that we were both in a reading slump. If we identify strongly as readers, but we are not reading much, what does this tell us about ourselves? What can we learn about readers?
Listening to lots of readers talk about their reading lives, it’s clear that sometimes readers don’t read. Give yourself some grace. Every reading experience influences our reading lives, including time periods when we choose not to read. Pandemic stressors aside, our reading lives ebb and flow. We just finished a book we loved and want to pause. We’ve abandoned our last three books and need a break. We have to read something for work or class and we don’t have time to read something else. Reading is easy to back burner. It’s a forgiving pastime. When you don’t make time to read, your book will wait. And wait. And wait.
When we accept that many adults are reading less or reading differently, we can appreciate that the pandemic has influenced younger readers, too. In the early days of the pandemic, many kids lost their book access when school and public libraries closed or restricted checkouts. Kids can’t read much when they don’t have reading material. Eventually, many librarians developed systems for distributing books to their patrons during the lockdown. In some communities, book and periodical access expanded with increased use of ebooks, audiobooks, and online databases. Meaningful access requires more than books on the shelves and digital library apps on every Chromebook, though.
While some communities have increased book access, others have stripped it. Across the US, censorship and book challenges from bigoted, homophobic adults are limiting book access for thousands of kids. Not just their kids. Everyone’s kids. While some adults complain that kids don’t read, others complain about their reading choices when they do. Kids need to read, but they can’t read that book. Or that one. Or this entire list.
Hey kid, take this copy of Doctor Doolittle, it’s still approved by the school board. You’ll love it!
I’m going out on a limb here, but I don’t think that seventh grader is going to fall in love with reading because of Doctor Doolittle. If you ask him, he wants to read about kids in this century. And that’s the point, isn’t it? One way to prevent kids from reading about people and ideas you don’t like is to crush their desire to read anything.
In some schools, kids are not expected to read books at all. Increasingly, many kids spend their time in language arts class reading excerpts, articles, and online comprehension test passages. Teachers claim that they do not have time for reading aloud or studying entire books with students or their administrators actively discourage them from doing so. During a recent Zoom meeting with a reading advisory group, one principal remarked,”No one reads books anymore and it’s a waste of instructional time to read books at school.” I asked if the school’s art teacher was only showing students the corners of paintings these days, but he didn’t respond.
It appears that a lot of adults, who are not reading much themselves, care a great deal about which books kids choose to read and how much time they should spend doing it. Kids are receiving mixed messages from adults about reading. When are kids supposed to read? What are they reading? Why are they reading again?
While politicians, the mainstream media, and other special interest groups stoke hysteria about “learning loss” and push one-size-fits-all curriculum, the answer to getting our kids to read more might be right in front of us. Just look in the mirror.
One of the most important influences on young people’s reading lives has always been the adults around them who model and encourage a love for reading. If adults are reading less, why are we shocked that kids aren’t reading much? It’s unlikely that we’re inspiring young people to engage in a pastime that we do not model or enjoy.
The Nerdy Book Club community is largely comprised of adults who enjoy reading and want to share a love of reading with younger people. Our enthusiasm for promoting reading to kids stems from our own reading experiences—both positive and negative. So, how can reading advocates support developing readers when our reading enthusiasm flags?
If most readers experience dry spells at some point, modeling a reading life includes modeling what to do when we don’t want to read. Our reading slumps offer powerful opportunities to show vulnerability and connect with kids. For many young people, their teachers, librarians, and home adults are the strongest readers they know. They think we have reading figured out. Imagine the surprise when we reveal that we don’t enjoy reading sometimes. Do we think kids will read less if we admit it?
From my experiences with younger readers, the opposite is true. Kids are able to see themselves more positively as readers when we show them that readers are not perfect reading machines. You’re still a reader as long as you continue to hold a vision of yourself as a reader. When you wander away from reading, never forget that reading is always out there—waiting for you. We can show younger readers how to find their way back to reading, too.
It starts with recommitting to reading and being transparent about the realities of our reading lives.
Stop comparing yourself to other readers, including the reader you were in the past. You’re not the reader you were ten years ago or even the reader you were two books ago. Self-reflect on your reading life as a whole. Can you identify other time periods when you didn’t read much? What was going on in your life at the time? What was your access to reading material? What brought you back to reading the last time you wandered away?
There’s not a specific book or behavior that works for every reader. What reignites your reading spark may not work for another. Participating in a larger community of readers can help. A strong reading community supports you even when you’re not reading much. Readers can share strategies and attitudes that have helped lead us back to reading and receive guidance from other readers who have experienced slumps of their own.
The Nerdy Book Club blog is celebrating our 11th anniversary this week. Reading through the past decade of anniversary posts reinforces to me that multi-generational reading communities offer readers more benefits than I realized when I started teaching. Take away the ego, age, and experience and we are all ten-year old readers again. Our relationship with reading in childhood has shaped how we see reading today. Kids’ reading experiences right now will permanently influence their beliefs about reading. They might fall in love with reading this year. They might fall out of love this year. They might fall back in love ten years from now–or never. Some will appreciate reading, but never love it. Too many kids will never get the chance to choose for themselves how they feel.
Younger readers need someone like you. I cringe a bit putting this burden on you when I just gave you permission not to read, but you’ve read almost 2000 words at this point, so let’s bring this home. Kids don’t need perfect reading role models. They need honest ones. Younger readers need more experienced readers who can show them how reading fits into an imperfect existence. They can decide what their reading lives look like. We can show them some ways to navigate those inevitable slumps, but they need to find their own way. Just like we do.
If you’re not reading right now and you miss it, what are you going to do about it? What will you learn about yourself as a reader in the process? How will this experience influence your interactions with younger readers? I hope you have some time this winter to reconnect with reading if you want. When you do, you’ll rediscover part of yourself again–for at least one book.
Thank you for supporting young readers every day. Thank you for being Nerdy. You’re the reason this reading community endures and evolves.
**Colby Sharp and I recently chatted about planning for reading during holiday breaks. Listen to this episode of The Yarn podcast if you want tips for guiding students to create reading plans or need encouragement for your own reading.
Donalyn Miller is a Texas educator and the author or co-author of numerous books, articles, blog posts, and speeches about engaging young people with reading and ensuring meaningful book access. Her most recent books are The Joy of Reading (2022) co-written with Teri Lesesne and The Commonsense Guide to Your Classroom Library (2022) co-written with Colby Sharp. Donalyn lives near the Riverwalk in downtown San Antonio with her spouse and his goblin dog. You can find her online on Twitter and Instagram.
That looks exactly like Teri’s boxes of books.
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Well done! Your piece covers so many important ideas about readers and reading. I appreciate having all of these thoughts in one place because it’s so good to know that there’s at least one reader out there who agrees with me. I’ve taken to “comfort reading” – re-reading familiar books – but I’m still trying to read daily. I read aloud to my sweet grade 4s because they’re starving for it. They’re starving for stories and vocabulary and images and…all of it. I proudly carry my responsibility as a reader – even a struggling reader – to share my passion and to insist on the value of authors, books, and reading! Thank you so much. N. Choules
Love this blog! Everyone’s reading journey is different and we should give ourselves and others grace in our new post-pandemic world. Kudos to you Donalyn!
Anything I read by you makes me feel better about life, Donalyn!
I have been a lifelong reader and getting books into kids hands that they would enjoy was my love language as both a teacher and a mom. Then I developed chronic migraine and reading got harder for me, so I listened to more audiobooks to keep up my 100 book yearly goal. One day this fall after weeks of debilitating migraine flares, I realized I hadn’t picked up a book for 2 months. I was 30 books behind my goal and I felt like a failure. But, I was in so much pain and reading a physical book felt like another burden that I just couldn’t take on. It made me so sad that I saw books this way because I missed them so much.
Two weeks ago I wandered into my living room and saw my Nancy Drew collection on the shelf. They were my 3rd grade favorites and I’ve kept my collection all these years. I thought maybe Nancy could help me find my way back. If I could read something simple and easy, maybe my brain would calm down enough to let me read again. I’m 10 books in and finding my way back one chapter at a time.
This is why it’s so important for kids to see themselves as readers. They need to fall in love with books and characters and have favorites they will keep forever. Life will be challenging as they grow older and reading might need to take a back seat for various reasons. But when reading is part of your identity, you will always find your way back. I will never want to stop reading because I am a reader. That’s what we want for all kids. To see themselves as readers so that even when life gets in the way, they will always want to come back to books.
Wonderful, Donalyn. Thank you so much for this.
“Stop comparing yourself to other readers, including the reader you were in the past.” is excellent advice. My reading habits have changed but not because of Covid; they’ve changed out of necessity. I read now to do research for my own books mostly…and also to spark joy and curiosity. So, I’m much, much fussier a reader now than I used to be and give up on books more easily without feeling any guilt. Life is too short to read bad writing or books that don’t make me think twice about everything I know or think I know. Sure, I give up a lot of books after a few pages or a couple of chapters, but I’m okay with that. I feel that I do still read voraciously, but also more judiciously. 🙂
You’ve put into words some of the things I’ve been thinking lately!
The Goodreads yearly vote came out for best books, and I mostly had to shrug. I haven’t read so many!
I’m still reading, but not nearly as voraciously as in the past few years. I thought it was just me!
Thanks for these words, Donalyn. I am retired from teaching but still discovering what kind of reader I am. One of my elementary teachers wrote on my permanent record that I retreated into books. She didn’t mean it as a positive. Retreating into books has been the way I have dealt with my world for sixty years. Please continue your good work.
“So, I’m much, much fussier a reader now than I used to be and give up on books more easily without feeling any guilt. Life is too short to read bad writing or books that don’t make me think twice about everything I know or think I know. Sure, I give up a lot of books after a few pages or a couple of chapters, but I’m okay with that. I feel that I do still read voraciously, but also more judiciously.” ……. Amen. Me too. In my mind this is most important in the quest to be an avid reader. I’m convinced we need to find the right book, one we can’t bear to put down, in order to fall in love with reading. That’s what I keep telling my grandsons and anyone else who will listen. Find the right book.
This was a wonderful post! My adult reading ebbs and flows. The missing link to inspire reading is reading-aloud. Every age needs to hear books read aloud. No wonder audio books are so popular. For children, it is crucial that stories are read to them. I’m a preschool teacher, and I read many books to children every day. I chapter read at rest time. I’m currently reading Doctor Dolittle, and children love it. It was a treat to talk about this on The Kelly Clarkson Show. Here’s to the readers, wherever you are in your reading.
Reading in my adult life changed five years ago when I became a foster parent. Although I am no longer fostering, I have not yet recovered my pre-pandemic focus or energy to read. I’ve been reading over the past two years, but it’s been mostly historical romance (my comfort) audiobooks with very few serious books sprinkled in the mix. I miss devouring books. The time will come when I’m once again carried away by words on a page. Until then, comfort reading will suffice.