This is a pile of books Tracy Alexander would like to read, including some novels for school.

Are We at the Tale End of Pleasure Reading?

Text and photographs by Carmiya Baskin

A satisfying crack. A waft of papyrus. A taste of adventure. The first sensations to hit after opening a new book.

These feelings may evoke nostalgia for those who still enjoy the effect of a new story. For others, these emotions may be completely foreign, a lost art among those who no longer read.

For most college students, the decrease in pleasure reading is due to a distaste in reading, an abundance of academic reading, distraction from other forms of entertainment, and job responsibilities, according to a study published in College and Research Libraries.

But for others, reading is emotionally and intellectually stimulating, opening up new horizons and providing support to the reader. Nikki Bee, a UCSB second-year biology major, said that reading provides an escape from reality and increases her creativity and imagination yet it also consumes a lot of her time. “The reason why I don’t pleasure read as much is because Netflix is so much easier.” She said, “Unless I’m actively reading, I forget how much I enjoy it.”

Tracy Alexander, a UCSB second-year communications major, also acknowledged that she likes pleasure reading because it makes her a better writer and offers her alone time. “The best writers read,” Alexander said, “That’s the only way to learn.” She said that she was part of her high school’s creative writing program and was constantly surrounded by avid readers, which increased her passion for reading and writing.

A survey of 717 college students conducted at Gustavus College, a Protestant liberal arts school in Minnesota, found that 77% of respondents lack the time to read outside of the classroom given the large amount of reading they have for school. Alexander likewise said that she feels guilty when reading for fun as she falls behind in schoolwork and is unable to keep up with current events.

Emme Bartlett, a second-year zoology major, said that her decrease in pleasure reading began in middle school when she first started to write and analyze essays. She said her teachers were constantly telling her the “correct” meanings behind novels which took away from her own insight.

Now, she dislikes recreational reading aside from the occasional comic books. She said, “Each superhero has several different timelines so if I don’t like one story, I can jump to another with the same character that I like… whereas if I don’t like a novel, then I’m stuck.”

Nikki Bee walks to class while listening to a podcast.

Rebecca Greer, the UCSB library instruction program coordinator, said it is difficult to gauge how many people are pleasure reading as most students who come to the reference desk inquire about courses and textbooks, not recreational reading. She also said most students are getting their book recommendations from sites like GoodReads, Amazon and Audible, so there is no need to contact librarians for suggestions.

Other methods of reading like audiobooks and ebooks have become widely available to students as well. Although Bee enjoys pleasure reading, she said, “I fall asleep listening to audiobooks.” Bee said, “I think they’re not engaging enough and for me it takes the voice out of my own imagination.” On e-books, Bartlett said she prefers them only when she is “traveling or on the go.” She said, “If I’m at home or somewhere with a lot of storage, physical book.”

Technology remains a huge influence on students’ lack of pleasure reading, according to Greer. She said she suspects that students are engaging more with other types of entertainment like videos and podcasts. Bartlett, for instance, affirmed that she enjoys playing video games in her spare time rather than reading as they force her to collaborate with other players to solve a puzzle.

Furthermore, Alexander pointed out that books become most popular when they are adapted to films. She explained, “When you get really into something and there are multiple forms of that thing… you get further invested into the characters and story.” On comic books, Bartlett agreed, “They have movie franchises, TV shows and video games about them so it’s this one giant universe that you can explore in any medium you want.”

Emme Bartlett plays a video game while Nikki Bee and Tracy Alexander read.

While all four interviewees agreed that there has been a decrease in pleasure reading, Greer, Alexander and Bee said that reading is a necessary skill to have. Greer noted that reading for pleasure improves one’s vocabulary and works of fiction promote empathy as the reader identifies pieces of themselves in the characters. A study published by the New Zealand Ministry of Education revealed that a majority of readers reported more empathy and compassion by reading for just 30 minutes a week.

Bee also referenced a quote from her English teacher, saying, “You read to get the joke.” She said, “Intelligent people are going to make intelligent references to intelligent texts and you’re not going to get it… if you don’t read.”

Greer further argued that reading helps with mindfulness. She said, “We are so harried in our day to day lives that it’s difficult to find perspective.” She said, “Reading for some people is closely aligned with a mediation or a way of calming the mind and really thinking about something very singular.”

On the other hand, Bartlett said that reading is too solitary an activity and she gets distracted very easily. She said, “I like being around people. It’s an only child thing.”

Greer then remarked that UCSB collects data mainly for research and “purchasing books for pleasure reading is totally secondary.” However, she said that one way university libraries can combat this lack of pleasure reading is by strategically placing books at the entrance of the building so students notice the intriguing, non-academic books.

She also proposed establishing a Popular Reads section to inspire students to read recreationally while Alexander offered bringing authors to campus to encourage students to read the book so that they understand references the writer makes.

As part of the annual UCSB Reads event, members from campus and the community choose an intellectually stimulating book that can be incorporated into UCSB curriculum. Last year, 1200 copies of “Into the Beautiful North” were distributed at the initial event while 50 more were picked up from the reference desk.

Organizations at UCSB are also doing their part to encourage pleasure reading. Around Valentine’s Day, the UCSB Literature Club hosts its quarterly event, ‘Blind Date with a Book’ in which books wrapped in newspaper are distributed among students with the themes written on the front. This enhances the mystery of the novel and teaches students to not judge a book by its cover. Additionally, the UCSB library has its Banned Book Week where students promote the importance of intellectual freedom by reading banned books.

The shelves at the UCSB Library are always stacked with books, most of which are academic.

All of the participants willingly shared their thoughts on trends in pleasure reading. Alexander seemed very passionate about the impact stories have on people’s lives while Bee appeared eager to share the life lessons one can learn from reading.

Greer also was very contemplative and reflective, offering insight and advice from personal experiences and data. Bartlett, however, seemed to know that her opinions differed from the rest of the group and she appeared fairly restless and uncertain when discussing her dislike of reading.

Overall, studies and individuals have reported that a decline in pleasure reading is upon us. However, the benefits of recreational reading have suggested that this activity not go out of practice just yet. According to research at the University of Sussex, recreational reading is 700 percent more effective at reducing stress than playing video games.

“The best writers read. That’s the only way to learn.”
-Tracy Alexander

Pleasure reading is more than cracking open a book and mindlessly flipping through a sea of ink until the story comes to an end. It is embarking on adventures with characters and learning about oneself through the literature of another writer.

Without pleasure reading, future generations will grow up in a world ridden with ignorance, neglect and dissent. But, with a gratifying crinkle, a whiff of parchment and an appetite for action, one can expand one’s mind, develop tools of communication and foster connections between authors, scholars, and fellow readers.