Students don't read books any more. Why?

23rd May 2014 at 01:00
A professor of history explains why academics and teachers must engage young people in a medium they trust - the internet

The other day I was talking to a student in her third year of reading history at an elite British university. I asked if there were any books that had changed her understanding of the world. She replied that she had not read a book from beginning to end. "We don't have time to read whole books," she explained. "There are quicker ways to get the information needed for an essay, and other things to do at university."

Surprised by her response, I consulted other students and the answer was largely the same. They did not see the point of wasting time with books when they could use the likes of SparkNotes and Wikipedia on the internet, look up articles and subject surveys in the JSTOR digital library and read book extracts prepared by their lecturers. This was how they had learned to study for school exams, their methods were successful and they saw no need to change.

Why are young people no longer reading books in the way they used to not so long ago? The much-bemoaned decline of reading by children distracted by computer games and social networking is, of course, part of it. The internet has drastically reduced the attention span of teenagers. Perhaps money is a factor, too: books are expensive in a world where information on the web is largely free.

Students are reading in a different way. They work harder than before and assemble data from a wider range of sources than the list of books and articles that used to be given. They process information at broadband speeds, scrolling through the internet for what they need, reading "more in the vertical than in the horizontal plane", as Walter Benjamin wrote about the way we take in the mass media.

Students are encouraged to read this way at school where so much study is geared towards exams. At university, too, they are trained in the academic discipline of "using" books (riffling through the index, reading introductions and conclusions, skim reading, or approaching them via book reviews) to construct an argument or engage with a scholarly controversy.

And, in fairness, many books used in schools and universities are not very readable. Most academics don't write very well.

But is this type of reading serving students well? Shouldn't they be leaving university having reaped the benefits of deep engagement with some serious books that may influence their outlook on the world? It seems to me that we may end up training students to process information and ideas, to construct arguments and pass exams, but perhaps not to read in ways that advance understanding and knowledge.

Good books swallowed whole transform our lives. We lose ourselves in them, emerging from them changed, richer intellectually, with new questions and ideas about the world. To read such a book in its entirety is to comprehend how its argument is constructed, to appreciate it as a work of literature and to be immersed in reading. This must surely help students to lengthen their attention span, deal with texts that are difficult and assimilate knowledge.

That is why I am teaching a new course called Reading History. The idea is simple: students will read five short but important history books, examining their context and their influence in various fields of history, and in their exam will have to show that they have read them all. I wouldn't be surprised if these five books are the only ones they consume in their entirety during their undergraduate degree.

Online dangers

Apart from the benefits of a good book, using the internet as a source of information holds real dangers for students. I checked SparkNotes and Wikipedia on my own area of expertise - the Russian Revolution, a mainstream subject in many schools - and found an alarming number of mistakes, misapprehensions and misleading statements that would never have appeared in a textbook written by an expert in the field.

For example, the student using SparkNotes as a basic guide to the events of 1917 would come away with the impression that the Tsarist state was as repressive as the Soviet regime, that the Bolsheviks were the only socialist alternatives to it, and that the October Revolution enabled Russia to industrialise and catch up with the West economically.

The internet is here to stay as the student's main resource and first port of call for information and learning. Books can play a role in this respect if they are short, affordable, accessible to students and able to engage them with interesting arguments by good communicators and experts in the fields - qualities espoused by Pelican, which relaunched earlier this month with five titles (including one by me on Revolutionary Russia).

But students also need more help from experts on the internet. If they won't come to us and buy our books, we must go to them and help them in the medium they trust the most. We need to improve the quality of online information available to students in the mainstream subjects they learn at school.

Britain's top historians have been slow to meet this need. Wedded to their books, they have used the internet to promote them through author sites. But few have thought to put their writing directly on the web to help students.

I am going to have a go. Last month I launched a free website aimed at helping students and their teachers to think about the ways they might approach the major themes of the Russian Revolution and Soviet history. The 18 sections, designed in parallel with the chapters of my Penguin book Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991, contain detailed commentaries on the issues students need to think about, extracts of my books, photographs, videos and podcasts, reading lists and my ideas on how to answer the most common exam questions.

I don't know if the site will work. But it is based on the many visits I have made to schools to talk to students and teachers, and I hope it will open up another channel for this dialogue. What I hope, of course, is that it will steer students towards in-depth reading of books, not replace them.

Orlando Figes is professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, and the author of Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991. Find his website at

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