“Books Matter. A Lot.”

Crossposted from Attackerman.

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education blog, a newly completed, decades-long study shows that children who grew up in a home with 500 or more books stay in school three years longer than kids whose parents only had a few books, and that children whose parents have lots of books are 20 percent more likely to finish college:

For comparison purposes, the children of educated parents (defined as people with at least 15 years of schooling) were 16-percent more likely than the children of less-educated parents to get their college degrees. Formal education matters, but not as much as books.

From the paper:

Thus it seems that scholarly culture, and the taste for books that it brings, flows from generation to generation largely of its own accord, little affected by education, occupational status, or other aspects of class … Parents give their infants toy books to play with in the bath; read stories to little children at bed-time; give books as presents to older children; talk, explain, imagine, fantasize, and play with words unceasingly. Their children get a taste for all this, learn the words, master the skills, buy the books. And that pays off handsomely in schools.

Even a relatively small number of books can make a difference: A child whose family has 25 books will, on average, complete two more years of school than a child whose family is sadly book-less.

It’s clear that having books is merely representative of something larger: a desire to understand, question, and get answers. And that desire dovetails perfectly into what school does, when it’s at its best, so it’s no wonder kids who grow up in a “scholarly culture” are more likely to stay in school.

I wonder, though, whether this “buy books” mantra will simply lead middle-class families to fill their shelves with “classics” that they may or may not read. And, more importantly, it seems like this study just confirms why the haves succeed and the have-nots don’t. Most disadvantaged families just don’t have the resources to cultivate a “scholarly culture.” After all, books are expensive (and we already know that it’s more expensive to be poor), and it takes time — time a single working parent may not have — to read books.

But I am curious about how a library membership fits into this study. Is the question merely the number of books your family owns? How much weight is placed on the number of books you actually read? Would growing up in a home with 500 romance novels be as beneficial as a weekly trip to the public library?

Image: CC // Flickr // Ozyman

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  • I think the “scholarly culture” argument is more valid than the money issue. After all, how many Black kids own Air Jordans and XBoxes, but only own the books given away at by Scholastic once a year? Sadly, it’s no secret that we put more value on material things than things that matter. My 2 cents.

    • this stereotype again?

      come on. do better.

      • J

        LOL. I don’t see the big deal. The problem is when people assume this applies only to contemporary black youth culture. It’s more representative of American youth in general. Mainstream America is deeply anti-intellectual and consumer based. Books have not played an important role in our national dialogue in decades. That’s old news. I mean, I went to high school in a state where they teach intelligent design in science textbooks. We live in a society overrun with functional illiterates. Talk about “c’mon people!” Every year a new study comes out showing how fewer and fewer Americans actually read books (though supposedly there was a 1 percent increase this year; see the Times article on BEA in the books section).

      • April

        The stereotype is stale, but I also have trouble with the argument that books are expensive. They’re relatively cheap compared to many–probably most–indulgences people afford themselves. It definitely has a lot to do with class/educational level, though. College-educated people are going to be more in the habit of reading than those who are not, especially those who did not finish high school, and so they are more inclined to pass on that habit to their children. Also, reading to your kids to give them a leg up is, I believe, firmly entrenched in middle-class child-rearing doctrine.

      • Just because they’re stereotypes doesn’t make them untrue. I spent 4 years of college tutoring students and lecturing their parents on this nonsense (one of the reasons I couldn’t become a teacher as a career, my blood pressure can’t take it)

        • Actually, that’s exactly what it means.

          • That’s exactly what WHAT means? That I didn’t have parents cuss me out for suggesting they spend $60 on a Sylvan assessment while their kids wore shoes that cost twice that? Or that even free tutoring was a waste of time but video games weren’t? Or that they didn’t actually HAND BACK the free books because he won’t need that in the NBA/NFL? I would have dismissed this as a stale stereotype in high school, but that changed when I went to college (in, of all places, pre-Katrina New Orleans.) I was fortunate to grow up surrounded by books and in honors programs, so this hit me like a freight train when I lived in the South. It’s bad enough when kids want to quit, it’s quite another to have parents actively contribute to the problem. Arguably I should have decided to teach to try to do something about this epidemic, but I’m only one person. And one person with little patience.

            • so all those books you read didn’t teach you anything about the faultiness of inductive reasoning?

              you meet person x. person x is a woman. person x is a bad driver. therefore, women are bad drivers.

              this is the kind of logic you’re riding for. it’s faulty and unsound, and it doesn’t suddenly become logically sound just because it conforms to/affirms your biases.

              • Um, no. You’re living in this Skip Gates world of Black intellectualism and I’m just describing my experiences (and in no way am I implying that my experience was unique, I’m sure we all tutored kids in college.) The fact is that the mindset exists. Period. Not ALL Black people, but far too many. I’m not riding for that logic, if I would want those kids to fail and kept my bourgie ass in a museum or something. The whole crux of the original article was around a “scholarly culture.” Sadly, not enough us us come from that, and hence, don’t value that. That’s essentially the original point I was trying to make.

                • lol! you’re not serious.

                  you’re the one stereotyping black folks because you met some folks while you were tutoring in college as anti-intellectual and incurious but I’m the one with my head up my ass?

                  LOL. kindly gtfohwtbs.

                  For the millionth time: just because you’ve experienced/seen/heard people do X doesn’t mean your generalization is not a stereotype, just because you back off saying “all of X do X” and opt instead for “many” or “some” doesn’t mean it’s not a stereotype, and just because the faulty inductive reasoning conforms to your biases and prejudices doesn’t mean it’s not a stereotype.

                  You can take this stupid, tired niggers-sure-do-hate-learning nonsense to any of the thousands of the other sites that will gladly entertain it. but don’t do it here. thanks.

                  • you’re the one stereotyping black folks because you met some folks while you were tutoring in college as anti-intellectual and incurious but I’m the one with my head up my ass?

                    *Am I stereotyping them? No. Describing them? Yes. Do you have you head up your ass? Did I say that?

                    For the millionth time: just because you’ve experienced/seen/heard people do X doesn’t mean your generalization is not a stereotype, just because you back off saying “all of X do X” and opt instead for “many” or “some” doesn’t mean it’s not a stereotype,

                    *I didn’t say it wasn’t a stereotype. It is. Do people fulfill them? Of course.

                    and just because the faulty inductive reasoning conforms to your biases and prejudices doesn’t mean it’s not a stereotype.

                    *I said it was a stereotype earlier, and again, people fulfill them. To solve any problem, you create a profile (ie stereotype) of the situation and work against it to fix it. (And yes, the program I worked with used actual data from the New Orleans Public Schools when it was created. The founders didn’t just pull it out of their butts)

                    You can take this stupid, tired niggers-sure-do-hate-learning nonsense to any of the thousands of the other sites that will gladly entertain it. but don’t do it here. thanks.

                    * I never said that. Again, don’t put words in my mouth. And I’d like to think that my days and night of crying, praying, stress (and the joy those kids gave me, it wasn’t ALL bad) weren’t “stupid” or “tired,” but we’ll have to agree to disagree on that point.

  • Books aren’t necessarily expensive. Thrift stores and used bookstores can be remarkably cheap, even where libraries are defunded.

    Obviously for the poorest, if it’s a choice between books and shoes, shoes will win. But there are a lot of bookish people in the ranks of the poor.

    • shani-o

      That’s a good point. Both of my parents grew up poor, but we had 1000+ books in our (middle class) home. Meanwhile I knew middle class kids who didn’t read at all.

      I guess I still maintain that the scholarly culture the researchers refer to is not something you can just create by owning a lot of books. My parents, despite being poor, had other advantages (maternal grandfather owned his own business; maternal grandmother insisted on higher education or military for all of her children; paternal grandparents supported their children as best they could in higher ed). I think what I was getting at is that there are innumerable factors that lead to families being bookish, regardless of wealth, but that poor families are less likely to be bookish, as evidenced by the fact that bookishness leads to more education (and presumably higher income, eventually).

      • i seem to remember a similar study from a few years back that found a correlation between school performance and the presence of books in one’s home. And like you guys, i think this is more useful because books and education are class markers. should it surprise anyone that kids who come from well-read/well-booked families do better in school?

        but bookishness has obstacles like everything else in high-poverty areas. Back in Philly, a shortfall in the city’s budget meant shuttering local library branches. And it’s not like there are Barnes and Noble stores popping up on 16th and Norris in North Philly.

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  • Alisa

    I don’t think it’s just the books that lead to the “scholarly culture”. I’d be willing to wager that parenting that involved reading to kids a lot and early would be required too.

    • quadmoniker

      Actually that has a lot to do with it, I think. You’re not going to use a book if you don’t see people reading books a lot, no matter how many you have. A lot of kids come to school with a huge deficit. It’s not just that they don’t know how to read, they’ve never seen reading modeled for them.

  • Zuri

    It’s not about books or if the parents went to school. It’s the way the child is raised. I have a friend his mother was in college at 14 and i borrow her books all the time. She has hundreds. Needless to say he dropped out his sr year of high school. And i grew up in a poor family with very little books and i love to read.

    • i think it’s about both- books AND how the child was raised- was the child being read to and encouraged to read? that’s important, it improves language skills and curiosity. (like tiffany says below)

      books *are* getting expensive, and i think will only get more expensive as libraries become closed more than they’re open and the fight between e-books and book-books drives more used bookstores out of business. i’m sad and becoming pessimistic about the likelihood of book-books surviving. and really, how fun is it to read a bedtime story to a kid from a kindle. really? and how many families are going to buy kindles? or be able to afford one?

      i’m so glad i was raised with books, and i think it increased my interest and success in formal education, not necessarily the other way around. i went to college, got a ba, and stopped there, but i have never stopped reading. i have a living room full of (too many) books and read all sorts of fiction and nonfiction, because i’m curious and want to keep learning.

      • it’s worth noting that e-readers still comprise a tiny percentage of the market. but even if they do overtake “book-books,” it seems like your issue with e-readers is a preferential one (“how fun is it to read a bedtime story to a kid from a kindle”) and not really about functionality.

        • i don’t know… i think it’s both. think about kids books- they’re very tactile, even to the extent of some of them having things you can touch like “furry sheep” hard cardboard and pop up books. that functions literally, but also like the bigger discussion.

          i spend a lot of my social media time on the “book book” vs ebook discussion, and absolutely, it’s still a small portion of sales. but i think the feeling is that it’s a large and growing portion of sales. the kindle is amazon’s #1 selling product, and the ipad sold a bajillion units in 2 months. one of the things apple is pushing is books on ipad, or whatever they’re calling it. we all know independent bookstores are going out of business left and right, and that leaves the big boxes to do the pricing. even b&n has an e-reader (though it’s not very popular). i just think it’s coming soon, which i also think will make reading less accessible to a lot of people who aren’t middle/upper-middle class. and to kids. kids books are about color pictures, big and different size pages, and touching. you can’t stick an ebook in your mouth. toddlers stick everything in their mouths, even books. and reading needs to start that early.

          • but this seems like a false choice, no?

            Kindles don’t mean that parents will stop reading to their kids; i think people can hold it in their heads to own kindles and give their kids actual, tangible books to point to the pictures in, etc.

  • I like buying books that the kids can use as reference. They love useless fact books. We buy a lot of books geared toward learning more about African Americans that have made a difference, as well as a few of the classics. My boys have me buy astronomy and science books as well. They love figuring out how this work and why they exist.

    Peace, Love and Chocolate

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  • Books are getting expensive. Some new books, in their hardback edition,cost almost $40 (Harry Potter, anyone?). And you’d be hard pressed to find an adult paperback under $10 these days. I understand how that money can be seen as a waste, especially in a household where you’re hard pressed to keep food in your mouth and roof over your head. My parents solution to was taking us to the library every week (and to different branches in the county so we could get a variety of materials) and every few months to the used bookstore to sell and trade our old volumes.

    Concerning “scholarly culture”: Books definitely play a role, but a lot of it has to do with encouraging your kids to ask questions and explaining the world. Once we got to be 9 or 10, my siblings & I were required to watch the news or read the paper at least once a week. My parents took us when they went to vote and explained the importance of it. We live in Atlanta, so they gave us a book to read about MLK and took us to the monument. We played educational trivia games along with Monopoly. When movies like Pocahontas came out, they would discuss with us the difference between the movie and what we learned in school. We were always trained to seek knowledge and be critical thinkers. But my parents have two BAs and a JD between them, so they weren’t getting this stuff out of thin air.

  • Leigh

    I’m curious about whether the types of books matter. I grew up just me and my mom in the house; we were both huge readers, but she of the mass market mysteries, and me Sweet Valley High. My dad is also a big reader, but also just mainstream mysteries and the occasional non-fictions sports or finance book, but also he read 3 newspapers/day. I still read a ton, but it’s a lot of fiction, and despite being about to finish a PhD, I continue to think of non-fiction as “homework.” Yet, here I am…(my mom has a master’s degree and my dad a high school education, fyi)…So does the type of book matter, or is it just evidence of a reading culture or learning culture that matters?

    • hmmm. i wonder if the kinds of books even matter at all. i mean, obviously, there are some kinds of writing that are more amenable to the kind of culture that college-educated people value, but it seems like just getting acclimated to the idea of reading for leisure — and the idea that it’s something that doesn’t need to be a chore and that you can sit still to do it — brings with it huge advantages for schoolchildren.

  • I would go so far as to say that the “which books?” question is actually counterproductive. For instance, a lot of ambitious parents try to steer their kids (sons, especially, I think) away from, say, comic books and graphic novels and towards “the classics”–with the result that the kids decide that (socially approved) reading is boring and onerous. I suspect that *the* main factor is living in a family culture where reading = a pleasure/leisure activity (as opposed, to, say, tv). If mom reads romance novels all the time, then the kids are seeing her *reading*, and are less likely to see books as alien.

    That said, there are obvious benefits to other kinds of family cultures, too. I would assume that a family where lesure time was spent, say, playing games together would be more warmly familial than one where everyone spent their time reading separately in different rooms. One where families do a lot of outdoor activities might create kids who are active and fit, but less bookish. Etc.

    • Leigh

      I have actually always associated books assigned at school with chore/unpleasant, despite being a voracious reader, from the books I was allowed to choose myself. To this day, hopefully only a month away from this PhD, with a bookcase full of “school” books, I still have to psych myself up to read them, even if I know I’ll enjoy the content once I’m in it.

  • jenny

    The study definitely needs to take library use into account. My parents – middle-class – were constant readers who NEVER bought books. They felt the need to read, but not to OWN, which is why I’m not impressed by the so-called “bookshelf porn” I see out there, with people more concerned about how their collections look than with their relationship to individual titles.