I’ve heard several variations of the argument that if you’re not reading reams of text on paper, you’re not reading.
It’s kind of a strikingly stupid argument in this day and age. It’s ableist, at the very least. It’s usually classist, racist, and sexist too.
And, more than anything, I don’t think it helps anyone—certainly not kids that we want to “read more.”
I’ve thought about the idea of what “counts” as reading a lot, and I want to make a few proposals here.
Reading can be anything involving storytelling. And more than anything, reading—in any format—should be joyful.
The Myth That Reading Isn’t about Joy
Some people want to define reading as solely about text-on-paper (or screen). They want to exclude audiobooks. They definitely don’t want to count graphic novels or other visual media.
That’s because they have this idea that reading is some kind of intellectually rigorous work. It has to be hard. We have to be engaged. We have to dig at it.
So when kids struggle with reading and say they hate it, these people don’t really understand that pushing is more likely to deplete kids’ confidence or have them internalize the idea “I’m dumb.” Or perhaps they do understand that—and they want it. They want these “dumb” kids to give up and remain barely literate or semi-literate, because being able to read well is a marker of class and intellect (and, by extension, gender and ethnic superiority).
This idea is really, really wrong. Here’s why.
Human Literacy Is Still in Its Infancy
Widespread literacy is relatively new! We didn’t get public education until the 1800s, when industrialists realized they needed literate workers so they could read instructions and operate machines correctly.
Before that, only the elites learned to read. And that really depends on which era we’re talking about—Charlemagne, who became Holy Roman Emperor in 800 BCE, didn’t learn how to read until he was an adult. He never learned how to write.
He sponsored lots of scholars; it’s one of the reasons we have this sort of Frankish renaissance during his reign.
About the same time, over in England, King Alfred learned to read a little earlier. It took him a while, and he was largely self-taught.
So there were points in recent human history where even elites didn’t learn to read as kids. We can see that even they struggled with it. Reading didn’t reach the masses until centuries after.
What I’m driving at here is that reading—text, the written word—is relatively new in human history. We’ve had writing—in the form of early Egyptian hieroglyphs, Sumerian cuneiform—for about 5,000 years, give or take. And that seems like a long time, but remember that the whole history of our specific species is 200,000 years (and six million if you count other hominids). For you math geeks, that’s about 2.5 percent of our cumulative evolution.
Yeah. Reading’s still pretty new to us.
We’re Primed for Visual Input
So, what does that mean? It means, as a species, we’ve spent literal millennia honing our other skills—like speech and vision. Reading text is so new. Our brains aren’t really adapted for it, not like they are for processing vision or speech.
That’s why, for a lot of people, reading is work. It’s tough! As a species, we really are not really equipped for processing this kind of information, so we have to work at it. Some of us are better at it than others, sure, and some of us have literal genetic disadvantages (new research suggests dyslexia actually results from a genetic mutation that affects the visual system).
On the flip-side, it’s why watching a movie or reading a comic book doesn’t feel like work. We still have to process all that information. We’re just about a billion times faster at it. (Okay—it’s more like 60,000 times.)
That makes sense. For most of our history, we had to be alert to our surroundings, attuned to every little difference in our environment. We need to be able to scan our surroundings and process information very quickly, or we’re going to get eaten by a lion.
So visual processing—kind of our thing!
Reading Graphic Novels Is Tough
That doesn’t mean we’re not doing work when we watch a movie or read a graphic novel. Visuals encode tons of information—arguably more than we ever get out of text. We’re just very good at processing it and very fast at is, so it seems super easy.
If you consider that, reading novels isn’t any more “intellectual” than watching a movie or reading a comic book. It just feels like it, because it takes so much more effort. And that’s because we’re (almost!) all good at visual stuff and less so with the written stuff, thanks to evolution.
We Have to Learn to Read Images Too
I did my undergrad honors thesis on the difficulties of translating manga into English, and one of the biggest issues is actually cultural translation. And that’s not just the words—translating words, by and large, is easier than translating images.
Images have all sorts of embedded cultural meaning, which we lose in the ether. We lose things within the text, yes, but if we don’t pay attention to the culture from which the images originate, we’re losing so much more.
What that means is that actually reading any kind of graphic novel is actually pretty tough! It often just seems easy because we’re biologically primed to read visual information really fast, and we’re familiar with the symbols we’re presented with.
So, if you’ve ever seen a kid flip through a comic book super-fast, it has a lot to do with these three factors:
- Humans are primed for visual information.
- We’re faster at processing visual information.
- We’re usually familiar with the “visual language” of the images.
That makes reading it pretty quick and easy.
Effective Human Communication Relies on Visual Information
An example helps make this really clear. One of the reasons we’re bitching about masks right now is that they make it more difficult to see facial expressions.
In that sense, they impede communication. People are making all kinds of recommendations for how we can better use our body language to make sure we’re very clear, even when we can’t see each other’s faces.
That should tell you about how much we rely on visual cues. How do you tell if someone is happy or sad if they’re wearing a mask? Is this person aggressive, or are they a friend?
Now jump back to our ancestors. We needed to make snap decisions about this kind of stuff—is that band of approaching humans a friendly envoy or are they here to slaughter us? Facial expressions can give us a hint.
Most of us “read” facial expressions with both surprising accuracy and speed as a result.
What’s more is that some facial expressions and their interpretations are somewhat culturally bound. So we learn what each expression means within our cultures.
Now, when we look at a comic book or graphic novel, we read the characters’ facial expressions with the same speed and ease. And we apply our cultural context to those expressions to make sense of them.
And we do this in a split second. So we can pass over a panel, glean the information very quickly, and move on to the next.
Reading Images Is Vital Practice
We’re still reading. And we’re arguably reading in a much more important way. The ability to read social cues is still a hugely important skill. It just comes so naturally to most of us that we don’t even think of it as one.
So that kid flipping through a comic book at light speed? Is still reading. They are doing a lot of work still, but it’s work that feels free and easy thanks to hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.
Maybe one day we’ll get there with text—but that will take a while.
Let’s Talk about Pictographs
The other thing I want to point out here is that most written languages have actually evolved from pictographic forms. Look at Sumerian “text” or the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. If you want a more modern example, take a look at Chinese, Japanese, and Korean writing systems. These are highly stylized characters that evolved from earlier pictographs.
Today, these written languages are phonetic, much like English and other alphabets. But, if you look closely, you can still sometimes see resemblance: “ma,” the Chinese character for horse, still looks like a horse, to some degree. The character for “man” looks a little bit like a human being.
Pictures Are More Efficient Than Text
I think it says something that when we first started writing, we drew each other little pictures to communicate ideas. I’ve seen people decry emojis, but that just seems to hark back to these more pictographic systems of writing.
They convey more than a word—to describe them, we’d sometimes need a few words. Instead of writing out “peach,” we can use the peach emoji, or instead of “I love you” or “ilu,” we send a stylized pictograph of a heart, which symbolizes love in Western cultures.
Just like the Egyptians—it’s written language in a format our species is primed to interpret.
Pictures Transform into Representations of Sounds
So, if we look at the evolution of writing, we start with pictures. We simplified those pictures, and those became codified into symbols or characters, which then began to represent different sounds. Those then became a system for putting down the sounds we make, the names we apply to things.
The entire evolution of written language is heavily reliant on pictures and our visual processing, then.
We Are Storytellers
For a very, very long time, we didn’t write language down. Speech and hearing thus are more developed in our species than written language. Hearing is another of those sort of “survival skills.” We need to pay attention to sounds in our environment, or we’re going to get eaten by a lion. Again.
We also need to communicate with other human beings. We’re social creatures, so we need to know if someone is grunting with happiness or anger. Again, that’s key—if they’re happy, that’s a good thing. If they’re mad, we might be in danger.
So, it makes sense that we have a lot invested in the various body systems that let us interpret human behavior and our environments. It keeps us safe and helps us work together.
Narrative Allows for Self Identity
It also allows us to tell each other things. We can communicate who we are, where we’re from, what we want or need. And this is the beginning of narrative. (Some people think narrative is key for self-identity.)
Humans have some pretty sophisticated communication skills; again, that’s thanks to the fact we’re social creatures. That’s why our language is “so advanced” compared to other animals that live alone. They don’t need to communicate with others of their species to quite the same degree.
Allowing for Abstract Thinking
We can think in the abstract as well. We may also have a conceptualization of time, depending upon the language, so we can tell each other when something happened. Humans can tell each other about things that don’t even exist.
(This is where it’s crucial for written language to begin mimicking sounds vs. pictographic representations of actual things. Once they’re mapped to sounds, we can use them to represent words, which have other meanings—which can be abstract.)
So, where am I going with this? Well, that humans are storytellers. We tell each other stories all the time. Who we are, where we were, what so-and-so did when we saw them the other day …
And before we could have written language, we had to have sophisticated oral speech. For eons, humans told stories, remembered them, and passed them down. Writing, in a way, is a method of “offloading” the work of remembering all those stories. We don’t have to store them in our brains any more; we can dump them down on the page.
But that means we’re also much better at listening to stories and comprehending them than we are at reading. Some people are even better at this than they are at reading or visual processing. Some people have a much harder time with audio inputs.
You should see where I’m driving with this: audiobooks are also reading, in a sense. They may not seem like work the same way reading is. They seem “easy,” much like a movie or a comic book, because we’re so primed to hear and understand stories this way!
Focus on Stories and Make Reading Joyful
The ultimate point of this argument is to say that if we want kids to be strong readers or love books, then we have to make them love stories first. And that means allowing them to interact with stories in whatever format they find most accessible.
Why? Another medium can become the motivator to read the text. Reading often feels like a lot of work. But if someone is motivated, they will find a way. They will put in the work.
Can Movies Motivate Reading? Anecdotal Evidence Points to Yes
I’ll give you the example of my partner here. He was diagnosed with dyslexia very early on. He hated reading through grade school. Other kids often bullied and mocked him.
People pointed him to Harry Potter, to this book, that book.
Today, he’s an avid reader. (He recently tackled Dune, and he’s always got a book on the go.) He majored in classics (Greek and Roman myth and literature) in university.
What got him into reading?
The Lord of the Rings movies. Yeah! When he saw those movies, he was enthralled by the story and the world. He loved them so much that when he found out they were based on books, he wanted to read those books!
Yes, he had been working on the skills he needed through his schooling, but he came to these books by himself. He wanted to read them.
And once he did, he realized how wonderful the world of books can be. And he hasn’t stopped reading since.
Don’t get me wrong—reading is still hard work for him. He’s a very slow reader (he’s constantly amazed by how quickly I read). But he’s motivated. He knows what wonderful stories are waiting for him on those pages.
What would have happened if Peter Jackson’s LotR movies didn’t exist? My partner might never have come to reading. People would have kept forcing him to try, and he would have hated it every time. He probably wouldn’t read for pleasure.
I Read Comic Books
By contrast, I was a voracious reader. I read everything and anything. After my first day of kindergarten, I was exasperated and frustrated. I marched myself to my room, grabbed a book off the shelf, and read it, cover to cover, word for word.
Then I marched into the living room and proudly announced to my parents that I did not need to go to school. The teacher had told us we would learn our ABCs and, well, I knew the alphabet already. In fact, I could already read! Ergo, school wasn’t going to teach me anything I didn’t already know, so why did I have to go?
I was also a precocious reader. I was bored by Harry Potter when I was in the “target age group,” because I was already reading stuff I shouldn’t have been—like The Grapes of Wrath or Gone with the Wind or whatever else.
In high school, I chose to read manga more often than not. I have stacks of tankobons. And, being a quick reader, I could just motor right through them.
I think they’re delightful. And being a strong reader in any medium, I can tell you, it’s very different to read a comic book than it is to read a novel. I can do both equally well, but they engage different skills.
So, when I switched to comics, was I suddenly “not reading” any longer? Absolutely not. I read LoTR and manga. I was in the “smart” group that read Wuthering Heights, not The Great Gatsby (which I later read anyway).
As I said, reading the two different media takes a different set of skills. So it’s not a stretch, for me at least, to think reading comic books is still reading, same as listening to an audiobook is still reading in a sense.
It’s all about storytelling. And it’s the stories that capture us, delight us, bring us joy. So, we’re really going to deny people the joy of stories over which medium they choose or prefer or are most proficient with?
Reading Should Be about Joy
As I pointed out at the start, there’s a bunch of ableism, but also a lot of classism embedded in ideas that reading novels is somehow more intellectually rigorous than comic books or movies. As we’ve shown here, it only seems easy because we are so good at processing visuals and text is so new to us.
But look at the way we depict people who choose to watch visual formats or read comic books—as “lesser,” as “intellectually weak.”
So, when people want to force kids to grind it out to “read a real book,” they’re actually exercising their desire to be intellectually superior.
And, as I’ve noted here, this is a really silly idea. Reading is, by and large, about stories. And humans love stories!
We love movies and TV shows and comic books–not because they’re “easy”–but because they bring us joy. When someone engages with a medium that makes it simple for them to process the story, they’re not doing any less work or less thinking. They’ve found a way to access that story and allow themselves to focus on the joy of it.
When we make reading books about anything but that same joy, we’re creating a problem–one engrained with classist, racist, sexist attitudes. Even if we want kids to read books because we think it’s important, presenting it as some intellectually taxing grind isn’t the answer.
And presenting that grind–which is common, because most of us aren’t born readers–as the reward for reading is a problem too. Instead, when we focus on the joy that reading can bring–when we focus on the fact it’s about stories and we all love stories–we stand a better chance of turning kids into readers.
And we have to let them come to it in a way that works for them. As I’ve argued here, visual media like graphic novels and movies are still reading. Same with audiobooks. We have a very specific skill set for this, one we’ve honed over millennia.
So reading a novel doesn’t make you smarter, really. It just means you’re putting in more grind to get at a story. In some ways, that’s inefficient–so you’re not as smart as your more efficient peers who are reading comic books and listening to audiobooks.
Now who’s the smarty-pants?
So, really–wanting to put text above anything else is an outgrowth of people wanting to feel superior, smarter, than other people. Reading isn’t some kind of intellectual pissing competition, and it’s actually not a terribly good measure of how smart someone is or isn’t.
Reading, at its core, is about the joy of stories. And we should be willing to acknowledge that and let people share in the joy of stories, no matter how they consume them. Because it still takes a lot of damn work to process stories, even if some ways seem “easier” than others.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read some manga.