Does It Matter What College Students Read in Their Leisure Time?

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently featured an article by Don Troop bemoaning the reading trends on college campuses. The first line, which advises authors to aim low when appealing to the college crowd, is an accurate, if condescending, summation of the entire article. Despite some outliers, Mr. Troop reports that “the banal tastes of the mass market” tend to dominate the lists. The article ends with a top ten list from Penn State, which includes books ranging from Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen to Bossypants by Tina Fey to The Big Short by Michael Lewis.

Several of the comments echoed the article’s premise, namely that college kids read subpar books in their spare time, while other commenters rationalized that, with the amount of reading most students are expected to do for class, lighter books outside of class should not be a harbinger of doom.

As an educator, a graduate student, and a former college bookstore employee, I was put off by the article’s tone and content. Even though I don’t necessarily take the “At least the students are reading something” mindset, which some people use to defend the popularity of certain books, I also refuse to denigrate the reading list as being crap (as put by one commenter). Reading, like most things, should ideally encompass a number of different ideas, genres, and levels of challenge. This is true at any level, but particularly during the college years.

During my undergraduate years, I was an English literature major and a theatre history minor. This meant that I read hundreds of pages each week for class, including one Shakespeare play a week, numerous articles on literary criticism, and works from authors ranging from Thomas Hardy to Anne Bradstreet to Art Speigelman. I have no doubt that Mr. Troop would approve of most of the authors I was reading for class.

My pleasure reading was an entirely different matter. While I loved reading the theatre criticism archives from The New York Times, I also read other books that some literary snobs might call banal and pedestrian. I read The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Inn at Lake Devine and Out of the Dust. I read film criticism and children’s literature, chick lit and mysteries, fiction and non-fiction. I enjoyed most, if not all, of the books I read, and I found myself interacting with them in a way that was different from the way I interacted with my school reading.

What articles like the one in The Chronicle of Higher Education miss is that not all reading must be for the purpose of scholarly learning and serious discourse. While these are two purposes of reading, they certainly are not its only purposes. Reading can certainly educate and enlighten, but it can also help us gain different perspectives and it can provide us with pleasure and entertainment.

We’d love to hear from you on this topic. Do you agree with the article that college students tend to read low-brow books in their spare time? Does this matter? What do you read in your leisure time?

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