We Should Have Adult Summer Reading Programs

My to-read stack, which glares at me from the side of my desk
My to-read stack, which glares at me from the side of my desk Photo by Jef Rouner
I spend a lot of time at Half Price Books (as the picture above should illustrate). I go at least once a week, even if I don’t buy anything. In addition to being a great place to pick up media and presents on a budget, it feels like a temple to the love of information. Everything bears the slightest trace of humanity. Nothing gives me more hope for the world than the dog-eared copy of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens that is constantly in stock in every used book store. Someone read that and then discarded it so someone else could. I meant what I said about such places being a temple. A handful of dollars is a tithe to many somethings greater than ourselves.

This year Half Price Books is running something called Feed Your Brain. It’s their version of the kids summer reading program that places like Barnes and Noble do every year. Children 14 and under earn “bookworm bucks” for reading through June and July. Read for 300 minutes, turn in your log initialed by a parent and the resulting “bucks” can be applied to future purposes. It’s gamifying summer reading, and it’s perfect for kids!

Why don’t we do this for adults?

I’m dead serious. Why don’t companies like Half Price Books and Barnes and Noble have their own summer reading program for grown-ups? There’s a pretty good case to make that we need one.

A quarter of American adults haven’t read a book in whole or part in the last 12 months. I get the idea of a summer reading program is supposed to instill a love of reading in kids that will continue into adulthood, but these programs are older than I am. Clearly continued literacy into the adult years is not just a matter of getting people to read when they’re younger, though it certainly helps.

Continued reading is important to well-rounded adults who can take in and process new information. I’ll give you an example. Earlier in June the official Half Price Books Facebook page posted the following quote by Alice Walker against a rainbow background to celebrate Pride month: “No person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.”

That post resulted in a flood of comments from people asking when Christian Pride month was, or lamenting how the store is making Christians feel uncomfortable. Apparently Christianity is the opposite of LGBT, which is like saying ham is the opposite of green beans.

These people need books. Lots of books. There are tons of books showing that Christianity and LGBT people are not in any way incompatible. You can buy those books at Half Price. I recommend Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, Pavlovitz’s A Bigger Table, Lee’s Torn, and White’s Stranger at the Gate. Something as vast and amazing as religion and how it interacts with gender-sexual minorities has a library ready to be explored in the comfort of a reader’s own home and away from the contentious online debate model. It's way harder to have a knee-jerk bigoted reaction when you've studied. The act of reading gives you an investment in what you've learned that cannot be replicated by having someone just tell you what to think.

I would think bookstores would have a vested interest in promoting these sorts of reading jags in adults like they do for children. They are, after all, great for business. Even people who are regular readers often have holes in their libraries they’d like to fill given a reason. My wife feels bad that she’s neglected a lot of the literary classics as an adult. I’m trying to catch up on the great mystery writers like Christie and Doyle. Others might want to delve into science fiction, books about psychology, essential comic trades and more. There could be suggested tracks for readers to pursue.

Gamifying desire would add incentive to keep on reading. It would have to be modified for adults, of course. We don’t have guardians to initial our reading logs. However, submitting short reviews would make a nice substitute. They could be taped onto shelves (sort of how like Spec’s advertises customer favorite wines) or posted online. An app similar to Goodreads would also be an option. Any reasonable method of reward for reading would be enough to spike those dopamine levels and keep folks engaged.

Yes, I’m sure that some adults would try to cheat the system. People are people after all, but as long as the reward is store credit what’s the real harm? Sure, you can pick up games and stuff at the stores. I’ve had my eye on a used copy of Until Dawn for PS4 there for a while I’m waiting to buy when a big paycheck comes in, as well as the tabletop Portal 2. I’m sure that regular store like Barnes and Noble would have to institute rules against using rewards for LEGO and statues and stuff that has a high resale value. Controls would have to be implemented.

These are details, though. The problem isn’t the minutiae; it’s the mindset. Aside from your basic membership-style coupon lists there’s no drive to create a constantly reading adult the way there is for children. That should really change. I’m not saying that because I want discounts on books (okay, I’m not ONLY saying it for that). I’m saying that because reading, acquiring knowledge in a way that doesn’t involve arguing about it in public on social media, is really important.

I truly feel like we have failed to maintain a culture of reading that extends into adulthood. A lot of people act as if they have discharged all obligations to enhance their literacy after authority figures have stopped grading them on it. That’s not good. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather live in a world where even people I disagreed with had the citations to back it up. Something as simple as gold stickers and three bucks off a purchase could do wonders to reinforce the habit of seeking new works to read. In this day and age, it’s essential.
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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner