Russ Roberts

Doug Lemov on Reading

EconTalk Episode with Doug Lemov
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Erik Hurst on Work, Play, and ... Rhapsody in Reading...

Reading%20Reconsidered.jpg Doug Lemov of Uncommon School and co-author of Reading Reconsidered talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about reading. Lemov makes the case for the educational importance of critical reading of challenging books and texts. Along the way, he gives listeners some ideas of how to read themselves and gives parents some ideas for how to educate their children.

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0:33

Intro. [Recording date: October 31, 2016.]

Russ Roberts: Now, this book's written for teachers, but I found it of great interest as a parent, and I think pretty much anyone who cares about education generally. And it deals with an issue we've talked about a lot on this program, which is mastery and grappling deeply with something. I want to start with reading. Why is reading so important in 2016?

Doug Lemov: Yeah. We call it the first among equals. But obviously it's an important topic in and of itself in schools. But really everything you study in school depends on your reading and your reading skills. The farther you go in education the more, whether you're a behavioral economist or you're a scientist or you study ancient religious history, you are required to develop your understanding of your field through the ability to read and learn from the discipline. And so not only is literature, English, its own important discipline, but all the other disciplines rely on it. And I would just say that it's under particular pressure right now because it's being threatened by the device that's within 5 feet of you right now, is within 5 feet of me, and is within 5 feet of all of our children right now--which is their cellphones. And so, reading rates are going down among young people. And as reading becomes more and more important, it becomes more and more scarce.

Russ Roberts: Now, you don't talk about that explicitly in the book, about this fall in the rate of reading. It's something I think about a lot, as a parent of four children who are now 17-24 years old; and I've watched the temptations of screens get more intense for them relative to pages in real books. Where do you think--do you think anything good is headed that way? It's like a very bleak trend.

Doug Lemov: Yeah, it's scary. It's interesting, you say, we didn't mention it in the book. We didn't. But it's just come up so consistently afterwards; it's really on everybody's mind. One of the things I think is most common in response to the threat of screens is that people say, 'Well, if kids don't want to read, we should make reading easier for them. And we should make sure that it's not too challenging and not too hard, and then they'll want to read more. And I think there's a certain amount of--certain something that's intuitive to that argument. And I think that Colleen and Erica and I see it very differently, and if we want kids to read, giving them the best things to read, things that have made reading an incredible experience for generations and that can't be replicated through any other interaction and that challenge kids and make them feel like this is really something different, that's probably the way to inspire them. So we actually, I think, rather than simplifying reading, making reading challenging and engaging is probably really important. And making sure that kids are reading the best books that are out there. And finally, I think, one other old-school phenomenon which is reading aloud is really powerful. It's one of the ways that you as an adult, a parent or an educator, bring a text alive to students; but then hearing other people read aloud makes reading a social phenomenon. And maybe that's where I see the most hope, which is staring at your cellphone is a relatively solipsistic, isolating pursuit. But stories began as ways to connect people. They began with the oral tradition; then they were written down. But for a long time they've been ways that we connect with each other, talk to each other about things that matter. And I think there's hope that literature, or that reading can be a way to overcome the social isolationism that comes with device addiction.

4:51

Russ Roberts: It's funny you say that, because, to me, reading is one of the great solitary pleasures of life, before screens were invented.

Doug Lemov: That's true.

Russ Roberts: Which is the ability to get lost--the way we get lost now on the Internet is. But it's different with a book. I want to respond to your point about hard reading. And I do think that theme runs through the book, a great deal. And I'm in big agreement with it. Isn't it interesting--and maybe it's me; I don't think it's me--that I can't think of a great book that was made into a better movie? Right? You'd think that would be easy to do, because you have the extra dimension of the visual story to tell; and someone else's imagination presumably is better than mine. But something else is going on in the brain there. Any thoughts on that?

Doug Lemov: Yeah. I think it's a great point. If there's a book that I love, the more I love the book, the more reticent I am to see the movie. I think it almost steals the personal interpretation from you--where you have to fight to get the book back from someone else's interpretation. And there's something powerful about having your own, deeply held personal interpretation and visualization of a book. So, I agree with you on the topic of movies. There probably have been some--there have been a couple of very good ones, that I enjoy. But for the most part, I prefer the book. So, I'm with you on that.

Russ Roberts: But there are two themes in your book that I think are important, that are easily confused. Which are that the two reasons I think we should encourage our children to read. One is, it's a unique human experience. That's what you just mentioned. The other is, it's part of a cultural and political and romantic and spiritual conversation that we have with each other through books. It's about being "educated"--whatever that really means. And those two things are different, correct? And do you think schools should be trying to do both? More of one than the other?

Doug Lemov: Well, I think they are both important. I just think it's easier to overlook the latter. Which is, we forget how much power connection, understanding you get from knowledge. In two ways. First, I think there's just a lot of really good research coming up from cognitive scientists that suggests that your knowledge is deeply, deeply important to learning. It, ironically in the age of Google when you can find people out there on the Internet who say facts are irrelevant--you don't need to understand anything; you can just google it and look it up, in 2 seconds--that actually at the same time, cognitive scientists are finding out that what you know and what's in your long-term memory is deeply important. And it's really the only way around our being prisoners of working memory. But that knowledge really matters; but also so does cultural capital, and what you know specifically and whether what you know situations you in part in the center of a larger conversation and marks you as someone who understands society and can weigh in on and understand its traditions. Well, that's really important; but the only way you'd understand that is if you had been without that cultural capital. And so you think about--maybe some of your listeners are familiar with Ron Suskind's great book A Hope in the Unseen. It's a story of a young man from Anacostia, in Washington, D.C., who goes to Brown University; and there's a sort of telling scene where he wanders through the bookstore and he's looking at titles by Freud and Marx and he doesn't know who any of those people are. And so, all those conversations where someone makes reference to them and makes reference to psychoanalysis and Marxist interpretations, he's totally at a loss. And every time he's at a loss in one of those conversations, he's marked as an outsider and unable to participate in conversations that allow you to seek opportunity, participate in meritocracy. So I think that cultural capital is deeply important. And so I think reading has become, in this country, we've let it become, the act of asking questions about a text and what text we're talking about is relatively unimportant, has become relatively unimportant. But actually we try and argue in the book that what you read is deeply, deeply important. One of the examples we use is Oliver Twist; and: does 50 iterations of asking character-motivation questions from Tuck Everlasting prepare you to be able to make character references about Oliver in Oliver Twist? And the answer we think is, 'Probably not.' You probably need to have read some things that prepare you for that particular challenge.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Tuck Everlasting takes a little bit of a beating in the book.

Doug Lemov: Not intentionally. It's a lovely book. It's sufficient.

Russ Roberts: But it's--that's story about the kid from Anacostia--isn't it the case that that kind of meritocratic, whatever you want to call it; you could call it snobbish--informed knowledge--is less important in 2016 than it was in 1920? In 1920, and in 1950, it was a way you showed, 'I'm a member of the club.' That club still exists. There's still a club of snobs who like to throw around allusions to fancy things. But they are less important, it feels like, that club, in terms of--maybe not in terms of shaping the world, but in terms of the actually knowledge. Maybe it's just a signal.

Doug Lemov: Yeah. That's a great question: The role of knowledge and the role of that club has certainly changed. I think people would be a lot less unapologetic about their snobbishness today; but because it's a little bit more hidden and a little bit more subtle doesn't mean that that it's still not their. And your being able to reference the right books and know what people are talking about when they talk about them is still part of culture. And in fact, fortunately, we might not be as egregiously snobbish or judgmental as we were 50, 75, 100 years ago. But those judgments still happen. And the fact that they are deeper beneath the surface almost makes them more--harder to manage, harder to get around, a little bit more subversive.

11:27

Russ Roberts: So, I've never seen Game of Thrones. Puts me in a small subset of American--

Doug Lemov: Me, either.

Russ Roberts: Okay; we're both in trouble. Because when people make references to it--and John Cochrane in a recent EconTalk episode made a reference to a wall in Game of Thrones--I looked it up. I googled it. I found that, 'Oh, it's Game of Thrones.' So, there I was. I didn't know who Becky Sharp was; so it turns out she's a character in Vanity Fair by Thackeray. So, today, for me--I'm in a small group--I don't know what Game of Thrones is. Hasn't Game of Thrones and other insider, clever pieces of cultural trivia replaced Oliver Twist and other classics as the currency of who is paying attention and who isn't?

Doug Lemov: Mmmm--

Russ Roberts: And why is anyone listening to our conversation? We've never seen Game of Thrones.

Doug Lemov: Well, I think that when I admit in public that I have no idea what Game of Thrones is, people sort of laugh and say, 'Ha ha, isn't that quaint? Here's this nearly-50-year-old guy who doesn't know anything about Game of Thrones. And I think it's kind of funny and droll.' I think it's very different when--you know, it may not be Thackeray. It's not Oliver Twist. But, you know, to not be able to discuss Darwin--to not be [?]--I think the cultural capital is still there. And there's some cultural capital that is kind of pop-cultural; and there's still, I think, a set of knowledge that marks you as the university graduate--someone who is part of the intellectual conversation. Someone whose opinions can be respected and admired. Maybe not so much any more when we are on the subway together laughing about Game of Thrones, or when you walk into a meeting when you have a conversation, when you find a reference, when you make a reference to a text. I think those things still exist.

Russ Roberts: Well, actually I think Dickens is a lot like Game of Thrones, now that I think about it. He was a popular serializer of his day.

Doug Lemov: Right.

Russ Roberts: And people were excited, waited with great anticipation for the next episode. And they probably talked about it a lot over water coolers if they had any, or whatever they had the equivalent of in the 19th century.

Doug Lemov: And he narrated the lives of people who, you know, previously weren't--in order to ever imagine that they were worth telling a story about, right? He was edgy, in his time.

Russ Roberts: Correct. But what's interesting is that he was accessible in his time. In our time, he is not so accessible.

Doug Lemov: Right.

Russ Roberts: And I want to raise the question--we're still on the same topic, really: When I was a kid, my dad wanted me to read Ivanhoe and Thackeray and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The White Company. And I tried very hard to read those books. I made my way through Vanity Fair. It wasn't easy. I'm sort of glad I did. But, are these books, like Dickens and Shakespeare, just the equivalent of Ivanhoe? Are these things that we as children loved and enjoyed and profited from, and now today's generation, they are just not interested? So, what's the loss?

Doug Lemov: I think some are and some aren't. Let me throw out some texts that I don't think are in that category. Shakespeare--I think Shakespeare is probably the exception. You know, you were asking before about, like, is there still cultural capital? I think being able to catch allusions to and understanding of Shakespeare is still important. But let's take another text. What about the Declaration of Independence? There's a text that recedes farther and farther from us every year because of the archaic nature of its language. It gets harder and harder to read--first the 20th-century- and then the 21st-century- and soon the 22nd-century-reader. And so, you know, when we talk about old texts and texts that have been important for centuries, you know, things like the Declaration of Independence and The Origin of the Species--how important is it to us that citizens be able to read those texts directly and understand them and not rely on some intermediary--some potentially manipulative intermediary--to interpret those texts? And I would say, it's pretty important; and hard to sustain democracy in a situation where only a minority of citizens can actually read the Founding Documents.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I agree with that. But I guess I also agree that there's something worthwhile about Shakespeare that goes way beyond being able to know that 'neither a borrower nor a lender be' is from Hamlet. I would argue--and maybe you don't agree--that the insights into human nature that Dickens illuminates, or Shakespeare, are what's important--are 90% of what's important. I mean, it's nice for cocktail parties; but in general it's worth reading because--they are geniuses. And they are geniuses because you can actually read them. I mean, it would be great to read Isaac Newton. But Shakespeare, actually you can read.

Doug Lemov: Indeed; I would argue they've endured for a reason. It's not an accident of history that there [?] Shakespeare: I think he was truly great. And it's hard to understand the tradition of, even something like, I haven't seen Game of Thrones but I'd be willing to bet that there's some sort of an allusion to Shakespeare--you know, like, literature does not exist in a vacuum; it's constantly commenting on itself and the history of previous texts; and it builds off of [?] knowledge. And so to really understand what's happening, even in a contemporary text, I think you have to have some knowledge of where those texts are coming from. So perhaps Ivanhoe fades into the distance. But I don't think that means that all texts of historical import fade into the distance. And I think a good portfolio of reading texts includes Shakespeare, certainly; it includes some Dickens, certainly, but it also includes modern texts and diverse texts and texts by diverse authors and coming out of diverse traditions. So this isn't really an argument, I think, for the same canonical texts that existed in 1920. It's just an argument for that fact that we need to be able to access those texts, and that what we read matters as much as how we read. That the texts that we have students read is not irrelevant; and reading is not some set of fungible skills that can be learned and applied no matter what texts you are reading.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's really your point about learning to ask questions about the text shouldn't necessarily--it's certainly not the only goal. But that somehow seems to be the goal in many educational circles: it's critical thinking--whatever that is. One of the things it appears to be is learning how to ask those questions. And you are saying it's a lot more than that.

Doug Lemov: Absolutely.

18:12

Russ Roberts: So, one point you make--you make it a lot in the book--is: This is hard. And teachers need certain strategies and skills to help students prepare to read difficult texts. And I couldn't agree with that more. There is a tension, I think, in modern American life and certainly in education toward making life easier. And that conflicts with this goal of grappling with difficult texts. Talk about close reading--the idea of close reading and how that relates to this.

Doug Lemov: Yeah; I think, close reading, maybe I'll start with why. Close reading--it's the important thing to be able to do in a reading class. Close reading to me is the set of skills that you use when a text is outside your comfort zone--when it's above your comfort zone. And I would just like to take your listeners back to college, or university, but say particularly college, the first time you'd really been stretched, when you were holed up alone with whatever that book was that was incredibly challenging to you and you weren't sure you could make sense of it. It was really hard to be successful in higher education, and most often in your professional life is to be able to read things that are not easy--that are out of your comfort zone. And increasingly, you know, leveled text is winning the day in our schools. And the notion is--my kids get this advice often from their school, 'Read a page of a book. If there are more than 5 words you aren't sure you understand, put it down. It's too hard for you.' Look, I'm sorry, but if those are my kids and that book is Slaughterhouse-Five or that book is Oliver Twist or Pride and Prejudice or, you know, Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, I say, 'Pick it up and struggle with it.' And one, read a great text; and two, understand what it means to struggle and how you struggle. And this is something we have struggled as teachers to teach, which is: How do you struggle with a book? What do you do when it's hard? We tell kids to re-read, for example. But we don't always tell them how to reread and what different ways to reread are. And we tell them to look at the text, but we aren't necessarily as rigorous as we could be in showing them what types of questions you ask when you are first just trying to establish meaning; and then to analyze meaning. And I think that part is super-important as well, because the second--I think the first reason for close reading is it's so important for kids to be able to struggle with things that are challenging. But we also focus a lot--the second reason is we focus a lot on what I would call 'gist reading.' Which is, we read something--we read a Shakespearean sonnet, and we say something like, 'What is this sonnet about? Shakespeare is describing the fickle nature of love.' Great; now let's have a conversation about whether love is fickle. But understanding the gist of that sonnet, and understanding each line of the sonnet, and how it contributes to the meaning. And how meaning is made. And all the subtleties of the argument is very, very important. I mean, in a practical sense, if you are my lawyer I want you to understand more than 'Hey, this is a document about the rights of citizens.' I really need you to understand every line--what rights, how, and to whom. And if you are my doctor I need you to understand a little bit more about, 'Hey, this is a document about the importance of glucose levels on health.' So, understanding more than the gist is really important. Understanding how meaning is made and being able to deconstruct it is really important, especially when you need to be able to struggle with the text. And so, close reading I think helps students overcome those challenges. And generally, you know, we've been asked to do it by the new SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) and by the Common Core. But there's been very little guidance for teachers on how to do it; and so what's tended to happen has been they've continued to do what they've ordinarily done and now they call it 'close reading.'

Russ Roberts: That's not uncommon.

Doug Lemov: Right.

Russ Roberts: What are some of the ways that instructors or parents can help their children get through difficult passages, or difficult books? Obviously a difficult passage is a starting place: you read it over again; then you keep going; and you hope it wasn't too painful that you didn't know what it was. But if you really want to master it, what are some of the tricks?

Doug Lemov: Yeah. Maybe I'll just throw out some ideas that I think are really good. A really good approach is to ask questions about texts that we often overlooked. And maybe the theme here is that oftentimes when we're talking about texts we ask what I would call 'telescope questions,' which was to look at the stars and we go for the big picture. And so we're reading "Letter from Birmingham Jail," and Dr. King says in that text, 'Injustice to any citizen is an affront to justice for all citizens,' or, 'is an affront to all citizens.' Do you agree with that? Is he right? That's a telescope question. And that can be a very rigorous question. But it's not text dependent in the sense that I don't really have to understand the text fully to be able to answer it. In fact, there were many times in college--I only speak for me; I'm not speaking for the rest--but there were many times in college, specialization maybe John O'Neil's 18th century English literature class, where I did not do the reading but I still was able to opine on--as soon as I realized this was a text about justice I was able to jump in on those conversations. You can talk about things even when you can't create meaning directly from the text. So, in place of telescope questions, like a lot of times you can ask what I would describe as a microscope question: and oftentimes it's a very simple question like, 'Who is "he" in that sentence?' Sometimes it will be really unclear, and what I want to teach students to do is how to build meaning up from its root layers. So, maybe it starts with some simple pronoun question. Maybe it's a paraphrase question: thinking about, in the book we talk about this very complex line that Scout says in To Kill a Mockingbird, where it basically takes all the themes of the book in this one line. And if I ask students about that line, they might--if I just ask them to tell me about that line or to summarize the line--they might tell me about the part of the line that was most obvious to them or easiest to summarize. But actually there are 6 or 8 key ideas in the sentence. And in paraphrasing I would ask a student to actually tell me--simplify, but tell me about every aspect of the sentence, so that I know that they understand the whole thing. I'm not saying that you only ask this type of question. Obviously it's a very forensic approach to reading. But it starts there. Lots of times we try and have big picture conversation with students about texts that they actually don't really understand what they are telling us. And they haven't done a base-level analysis on it. And so that's where the meaning breaks down for them. So I need to be able to ask those types of questions and then rapidly go to more rigorous, broader questions. So those are very important questions. And then I think one other question that's maybe really my favorite type of question that I learned from watching a teacher in Massachusetts--is what I call a 'sensitivity analysis.' Which is one of the things that great readers have is they have an ear for text. Right? They are reading and they instantly sense, 'I have satire on my hands here. This is an author who is mocking his subject.' How do you get an ear for language? One of the things that struck us is it's a little bit like having number sense in math--you have enough exposure to variations and permutations that you have a sense for what a change in the hundredth digit means in a mathematical expression. And so what this teacher does--it's a very simple thing--is he asks students to compare sentences from the text with very similar mirror sentences that have one or two very minor changes. So, I might change a single word in the sentence and ask students, 'How does it sound different?' So, Colleen does a great example of this in our workshop. She talks about the opening passage of Grapes of Wrath, where Steinbeck, he is describing a drought in Oklahoma and he talks about 'the sharp sun striking down on the land.' And she says, 'How would that be different if it said, "the bright sun shone down on the land"?' And the answer is: Sharp and strike--that's something that weapons do. It shows you that the sun is attacking the land; there's a war between heaven and earth. And so that, introducing those subtle differences is a very powerful way of developing the student's ear. You are basically isolating one variable and toggling it, playing with it, and causing students to understand how very small changes create shades of meaning and cascade through a text. And so those types of very--the microscope can be just as interesting and rigorous and demanding as the telescope. And those types of questions can be incredibly powerful in close reading.

27:08

Russ Roberts: So, I'm going to say something kind of--something snobbish, perhaps--which is: We're recording this in October of 2016 and Bob Dylan just got the Nobel Prize for literature. And I'm a huge Dylan fan. He's a big part of my childhood. I love his music. It can make me cry; it gives me goose bumps; it can make me happy and dance. He's great. And he's considered a poet. But my first thought on that award and thinking about integrating it with what you just said is that I'm not sure his lyrics bear close reading. They have an impact which is special and different, because it's tied to music. But he's not a craftsman in the sense that Steinbeck was. Or that Cole Porter was, even. Or Gershwin. And I don't know if that's just that I'm a 62-year-old curmudgeon now--which I can't bear to think; literally it's an unbearable thought. So I reject that immediately. But I do think what you're talking about is the equivalent of a music appreciation class, but not with Dylan. With Beethoven, or Bach, or Stravinsky. There's something complex going on that you're missing if you don't learn how to look below the surface that is not the case with The Who. I love The Who. I love Pete Townshend. And it speaks to a part of me. But great literature speaks to a different part of me. Great poetry. Think that's a fair assessment?

Doug Lemov: I do think it's fair. It's [?] and there's so many different aspects of your analysis there. I'm a huge Bob Dylan fan, also. I think he deserved the Nobel. As soon as I think about it, I think of "Blind Willie McTell," which is my favorite Dylan song. And if you think about it, you can listen along to it and get some sort of a story from it. But there's also--I think the reason people talk about Dylan being something different from most poets is that that song like many of his songs I so rich in symbolism about, you know, its story about the American South, and the symbols of the American South, and the racial heritage of the American South are so rich and powerful in that song. So I would say that it--you know, it certainly is exceptional among music because it bears close analysis. I would say that poetry is always a little bit challenging because poetry is to some degree always about the gaps in what's written. And it functions differently. In prose, I do think it's important--close reading functions differently with poetry than prose. But I think that, certainly that many of his songs bear rich and deep analysis; and if you really wanted to come to understanding of his role in American society and why he matters and why people talk about him for the Nobel Prize, you would probably need to be able to unpack some of his lines. When he says--let's take even a very mundane line, "The times they are a'changin'." What times exactly was he talking about? How did he perceive them to be changing? What specific events is he referring to. "A hard rain is going to fall"--fall on whom for what? And what specifically is he alluding to when he talks about when he talks about a hard rain? So, maybe that's--maybe Dylan is a telling example. But we can only refer to it if he actually gets back to the Nobel Committee and accepts the Prize. So we'll see how that goes.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Rumor has, he sort of has. I'm not sure.

30:57

Russ Roberts: We've had Angela Duckworth on EconTalk to discuss the idea of grit, which she's a big proponent of. And the kind of close reading you are talking about certainly requires a great deal of perseverance. It used to be called sitzfleisch--that you could just sit and struggle with something rather than just close the book and move on to something else. What do you think of this whole idea of grit? And what's its relevance, if any, for reading.

Doug Lemov: Yeah. That's a great question. I think there's so many characteristics, personalized characteristics that often lead to success. I think about it as a parent: Do I want my children to be gritty at times? Yes, I do. Do I want them to be compassionate at times? Yes, I do. Do I want them to be understanding? Do I want them to be passionate? There are a lot of things I want them to do. And a lot of it is setting-dependent. And so I think in many ways the best way to teach those things, these characteristics, are, rather than setting out to teach them directly and 'Now I'm going to teach my children how to have grit,' I'm just trying to think what those lessons look like around the Lemov household. They are not that successful. But I think context-dependent is actually the way I want them to be tenacious when they are reading and not give up; and that some things are hard to stick with. I think that is an important manifestation of grit. And in some ways I think you learn those lessons more compellingly when they are embedded in one of the activities of your life. And of your life. So maybe one of the benefits of close reading is that it teaches students, maybe not to be gritty across their entire lives, but gritty when appropriate, when reading a challenging text and how to summon [?] skill and the desire to do it. I mean, one of the things that would make you want to stick with a text and want to slog through it is knowing that at the end of it there will be great insight, and there will be richness [?]. I think one of the ways that close reading can go wrong is if you try and close-read a text that's not really worthy of deep analysis, and the rationale for the endeavor becomes questionable. And so, when my kids struggle with a text for the first time, I want it to be a great text. I read To Kill a Mockingbird aloud to them one summer, and I think their having a very powerful experience with that text is one of the reasons why when they are faced with more difficult texts in high school and in college they will be willing to persevere. [?] It's a combination of skill and motivation. And so I think both the techniques--there's both the opportunity for the techniques of perseverance and grit, and also a motivation: Why would I want to? Well, because when I have this insight, when I was reading this book, there's nothing quite like the insight you get when you are reading a great piece of literature and all of a sudden you are struck by something that feels like truth.

Russ Roberts: That's really lovely. And it's certainly what I wish for my children. I have to confess that for myself, at the curmudgeonly age of 62 and the modern era of screens and digital life, I struggle to stay as persevered--not a word, probably--and gritty as I was when I was younger because of these distractions. Do you find that a problem for yourself? And if it's a problem for us, it must really be a problem for our kids, I think. Or maybe it's easy for them--I mean, they know how to multitask.

Doug Lemov: Overwhelmingly I find it a problem for me. And I'm sure that it's a problem for them. I just don't know that they have anything to compare it to, to understand what a big problem it is. But, you know, in writing this book we spoke to several professors at the university level and college level; and I remember talking to one of my own professors at Hamilton College where I went, and she talked about how different students read now than in "my generation." Which is almost your generation, I would suspect. But reading used to be a reflective exercise of long and deep meditation, you alone with a book. And that increasingly for students it's [?] constantly interrupted. It's constantly--there are constant breaks in their train of thought, even 15 seconds, every 30 seconds, ever minute. There's data that the average person checks their cellphone 120 times a day. I'm sure for young people it's 10 times that. And so they have a different relationship with the text--that reading has become a less meditative phenomenon. And I even find that, myself, I struggle to maintain my concentration because I don't maintain my concentration as consistently when I read. One of the things that helps me is I have to print it out. When I print it out, I read like I've always read; and I'm much more diligent and dedicated and focused. And when I try and read on the screen I'm constantly interrupted. And actually there's a lot of research that suggests that people remember much better what they read much better when they read it in hard copy as opposed to in electronic form. And so I think it's a constant challenge to maintain focus and concentration. But it's--I think what my experience is telling me is it's a habit. It's a habit that I'm struggling to stay in shape with, and that certain--if I do it in certain settings, I'm better at it. And so I think about the same for our kids: building a habit of sustained focus and really diligently staying with the text is one of the ways that we socialize young people to be able to sustain focus and stay with the text. But I think a lot of parents, one of the first questions they ask about their school is, 'Is the school infused with technology? How will my kids have access to technology?' My concern, Russ, is the opposite. If I could have anything from my school, it would be a place where my kids sustain their focus in conversation, in reading, in writing, without being interrupted with a technology for as long as possible.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I couldn't agree more. I keep the Jewish Sabbath, which means that for 25 hours every week I am screen-free. And I have real books--from my past life and my current life. Which I read during those 25 hours. And it's a big time of reading, among many other things; but reading is part of that 25 hours for me. And I do think there is some interest in that idea, a secular version of it, because I think people do realize what's being lost by the difficulties in focus and concentration. I have to say, I'm not sure it makes that much of a difference in the other 6 days of the week. I like to think it does. But at least that day, I'm more focused on my family and books in a different way than I am when I can check my cellphone those 120 or 10,000 times.

Doug Lemov: Yeah. I'm thinking of trying that.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, no, I recommend it. I've also started meditating, which I've found to be a very interesting way to maintain focus. It's--again, what you said I think is relevant. I think for people under the age of 30, I don't think they have anything to compare it to. And they don't feel like they've lost anything. For those of us who are older, it's--the texture of daily life is so different that I frequently miss the way it used to be.

Doug Lemov: I think meditation is a really interesting comparison point. Because I think that's even the word I used to describe reading--

Russ Roberts: It was--

Doug Lemov: which is meditative. That meditation is a worthwhile experience in its own right. That is to say, when you are meditating, it's valuable to you. It's reflective. But that it also stays with you in some ways and influences your interactions with the world afterwards. And I think you could argue that reading is really--deep reading is a form, has been, a form of meditation. And part of the battle is to keep it that way, and to sustain our focus, and be able to--you know, when are you most at risk for checking your device when you are reading? When the reading is hard, when it's challenging; when you lose the thread. So, somehow I think the skill of close reading is particularly important to being able to really sustain your focus.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. A challenge I find often is I want to know what happens next, if I'm reading an easy book. And so I'm reading ever more quickly, so I can get back to my cellphone. Which is a really bad thought.

39:38

Russ Roberts: Now, your book is mainly about helping teachers. But of course you have many thoughts on reading, not just teaching reading. And I'd like to hear what your advice is for our listeners who still read. I get asked a lot: How do I read so many books? Because I read about 30 books a year for EconTalk. And a few more besides, that are outside EconTalk. And my old joke is: 'Before I had kids I read a book a week. Now that I have kids I read a book a night--but it's got a lot more pictures.' And so, I get asked. And my general answer--the lessons I've learned as a reader are things like: It's okay not to finish a book. That took me a long, long time to be able to do that, to put a book down and not finish it. Not because it was hard; because it was not worthwhile. I didn't used to write in my books: they were pristine. I now write in them all the time, because I'm older; I forget stuff. But I realize that when I was younger, I wish I had written stuff down--I'd remember it, probably, now, better and certainly could go back to it. I re-read. I read some books more than once. Certainly many passages more than once. And I'm curious what your thoughts are and advice for readers.

Doug Lemov: Yeah. Advice for readers, personally, or advice for parents developing readers? Or both?

Russ Roberts: Both.

Doug Lemov: Yeah. It's a great question. I think a couple of things you hit on are really important. I think that reading and memory--I think interactive reading, marking up a text as you read it--is a way of interacting with it, and saying, underlining this, 'This thought is really important. I want to remember that star on that page. That's powerful to me. I'm going to write a note to myself at the top of that.' 'Hmmm. I want to argue with the author here.' I think those are really powerful tools for making the text engaging; and [?] I think it's really important--to me a well-read book is one that's full of annotations, right. And it's one of the reasons why it's hard for me to read electronic texts, I think, because I can't annotate in a way that helps me. It's my habit, interacting with the text. I would say that's also true for parents: I think it's important for kids to develop that skill as they get older. And I would just say that reading with a pen or pencil is very different from reading with a highlighter. And a pen or pencil is much better. I think--you know, just one other thought about reading--maybe this is mostly for parents but maybe it's not--I really, Erica, and Colleen, and I are really passionate about reading aloud. I just finished reading aloud a book to my daughter. She's in 2nd grade, and I read to her Island of the Blue Dolphins, which is--most people would say it's a Middle School book. Its lexile is 1000--

Russ Roberts: Explain what that is.

Doug Lemov: Yeah. Lexile is a measure of text complexity--sentence length and vocabulary. It's an imprecise tool but a tool that educators would use to say, 'At what grade level do you read this book in terms of how comprehensible is it to the average student of average age?' So a lexile of 1000 would put this book at about a 6th grade level. So I read it to my 2nd-grade daughter. And I read it aloud to her. And I think--I was doing a lot of things when I read that book aloud to her that I think were really important and make me really believe in reading aloud, both to your children and maybe just reading aloud with someone else. But, first of all, she's had lots of experience reading books to herself that are perfectly nice books, from Curious George to Magic Tree House. But there's nothing that she can read to herself that is like the complexity and depth of the narrative of this--Island of the Blue Dolphins was just truly a great novel. I loved it as an adult--never mind its being written at a Middle School level. And so I think that I am selling her on the act of reading books, both by reading something that's beyond what she's ever imagined a book can do. I think for the rest of her life she'll be changed by the experience of that book. And then I think a big part of it is my reading it aloud to her and trying to breathe life into that text through the way that I read it. And so it was really important--I both read it mildly dramatically and tried to give voice to the characters and the setting, but also got really comfortable with her and read really slowly to her so that the pauses were--sometimes I'd pause and she'd just look at me, and I'd look back at her, and then I'd keep reading. And sometimes I'd pause and she would look at me and she would say something, like, you know, 'She must have been very scared.' Or whatever it was that she was feeling at the time. And so I think reading aloud really brings the story to life and lets people get in touch with people [?] who are in the narrative tradition that's written in the heart of every story. And then just from a parenting perspective: Here's some of the vocabulary words that were in the Island of the Blue Dolphins when I read it to my 2nd-grader: 'glisten,' 'befall,' 'pelt[?]'. So, when was the last time you used one of those words with your 2nd-grader? When was the last time you used one of those words in conversation at all? Possibly never. Not recently. And so the things that literature--books are full of those words, and they really only exist in writing. The spoken language and written language are very different; and the extent of vocabulary words is very different in those two forms of language. And so the only way to be exposed to words that are so critical in that book is to have heard them read to you or have read them yourself. And so from my perspective, reading her Island of the Blue Dolphins, she was getting 8 times as many vocabulary words, 8 times as fast, me reading to them, me reading to her this book and with a bit of expressive reading as she would be if she were reading Magic Tree House. And so when she reads them on her own, she'll have a tremendous head start in terms of vocabulary.

Russ Roberts: Do you annotate as you go along? Do you stop and say, when you read a passage you know she doesn't understand, do you stop and explain it?

Doug Lemov: Well, it's interesting. There were very few passages that she didn't understand. There were a few. And I would explain it very briefly. But I didn't do a lot of questioning. I tried to leave pauses where she could react if she wanted to. I think I just like to let the story speak for itself. There were a few times when I'd explain a word or a phrase, you know, if I really was confident that she didn't understand it.

Russ Roberts: Because I would read Kipling to my kids a lot, growing up. Plus, I read an entire P. G. Wodehouse novel to one of my fairly-old children, which was a glorious experience. It made me appreciate Wodehouse much more than I have.

Doug Lemov: Just how important--I think it's so important. I think what you just said is super-interesting on so many levels. We stop reading aloud to kids when they get to, like, 3rd grade, maybe.

Russ Roberts: Yeah; I think that's a mistake.

Doug Lemov: But actually, I was reading aloud to my 8th-grade daughter last night. I still--I swear I'm going to win with my 10th-grade son: He's going to let me read The Odyssey aloud to him.

Russ Roberts: Make sure you read the newer translation--what's his name? I can see it from here. Once second. Uh--yeah. Read the Fagle's, the Fagle's translation. I read that to my little kids, actually, because it's so--if you pick the right passages; I didn't read it start to finish. But if you start with the banquet hall scene, for example: if you tell some of the story and you read the banquet hall scene, or the Cyclops scene--it's as cinematic as anything you could watch. It's just tremendous. So good.

Doug Lemov: I think the other thing that you said when you talked about reading P. G. Wodehouse aloud is that it changed your appreciation of things--

Russ Roberts: Yeah, for sure.

Doug Lemov: That I think, verbalizing it brings the story to life in a way that nothing else does. And it also reminds me why--if my daughter had read it to herself there would have been lots of passages that she quite follow. But in addition to bringing the story to life, when I read it to her I was able to kind of model to her what the syntax of a very complex sentence sounds like.

Russ Roberts: For sure.

Doug Lemov: So I think that there's a hidden form of vocabulary when they are reading, and it's syntax-complexity. When you ask kids about a difficult passage, oftentimes they got one of the ideas within a sentence but they didn't--the sentence was incredibly complex and multi-faceted. And so they didn't understand how all of the ideas in the sentence connected. And there's too much syntactic complexity for them.

Russ Roberts: Yep.

Doug Lemov: And so if it's the first time you've encountered a book with really rich syntactic complexity like you'd see in Dickens or in Wodehouse or even in Island of the Blue Dolphins is when you are in 6th grade, you've probably lost the game already. So the key to me is that my daughter--you know, I was reading her a variety of ornate sentences that are probably more advanced than most adults use in their everyday work lives. Hundreds of them, thousands of them in a row as a second grader. But also, and then by expressing them, helping her to understand what they sounded like. Which is why I think that there were comparatively few moments of lack of understanding; but also that's like, I think, one of the powers of reading aloud. So if I could say to parents, do anything with your kids, I would say: 1. Read aloud to them, and 2. Read aloud to them difficult, exciting, wonderful but difficult texts that are above their ability to read on their own. So, you give them great stories and great vocabulary and great syntax, above their and in advance of their ability to read it themselves. And then, to the degree that you can make oral reading a part of your life, you have another adult you'd enjoy reading with--you have an older child--I can't tell you how much I loved having a book to read aloud to my older kids. You know, every summer. The summer we read To Kill a Mockingbird aloud to each other, that was an incredible experience. So, I think there's--that's where texts started, and I think it's a really powerful experience. For young readers and potentially older readers as well.

50:07

Russ Roberts: I love the idea of reading something difficult, because I think a younger child--and again, not a 5-year-old or a 4-year-old, but a 9-year-old or a 10-year-old understands that you are opening the door to something magical. And the fact that they don't understand ever word is not a bad thing. Because they know that, 'Oh, my dad understands it.' Probably. He may not, actually. But they assume that we do. And they think, 'Some day I'm going to read that myself. And I'll understand it more than I do now.' And that anticipation--it's such a gift. I interrupted you. You were going to say something else, too, about reading advice.

Doug Lemov: There was one other thing: there's such a powerful connection between fiction and nonfiction and between knowledge and reading. There's a lot of--I was talking about research of cognitive scientists. But there's been a lot of fascinating research that suggests--we assume that reading is a skill. That inferencing--making inferences--is a skill. But I think there are a lot of cognitive scientists who have questioned that. And that, you know, what they find is that your background knowledge about a topic correlates to how well you are able to comprehend it. Or, another way of thinking about that is how deeply you comprehend it. And so, if I wanted to enrich my reading experience, I would combine my reading of a novel with my reading of short non-fiction pieces to enrich that novel. And maybe I would just start by describing how this might work in a school setting, and then how I've applied it with my kids and myself. So, I was watching a teacher teach a book. It was a 4th grade novel called Lily's Crossing; it's about New York City during WWII. There are all these allusions to things that 4th grade kids in the 21st century know nothing about: Victory Gardens and rationing and blackout curtains. And instead of just like explaining them or glossing over them, this teacher would have, you know, for 20 minutes of class for 3 or 4 days, they would read an article about one of these things. So, they read an article about rationing , and what sorts of things were rationed, and why. And the interesting thing is, you know: Nonfiction is really hard to read. And in your elementary school and middle school and high school years you read comparatively little of it. And then you show up at university and all of a sudden 80-90% of what you read is nonfiction. So, one of the key things--the new SAT and the Common Core, despite all the political flux about them--there's a core idea that's very good, which is: Read more nonfiction; it's really important. Pushing us to do that, I think they are right. But, you know, reading nonfiction is hard and it often is a disconnected experience for kids. But for the kids in this classroom, they had just been reading about this character and Lily in the book who experienced rationing; and so all of a sudden they were kind of interested in rationing. And they read the nonfiction with interest. Right? They understood why they were reading that article, and that made them interested, in a way that [?]

Russ Roberts: [?] this idea.

Doug Lemov: When I was an English teacher, the way that we approached nonfiction was we were doing a nonfiction unit. And we'd take a selection of articles and we would attack them from, you know, a formulistic standpoint. It was almost French. It was like, 'Today we will look at the subheadings and understand why the subheadings--' or 'Today we will look at the organizational patterns of--' on one day it would be a naked mole rat and the next day it would be the American Revolution. And kids were constantly disconnected from these texts and have no idea: 'Why would I be doing this if a teacher wasn't causing me to?' But this teacher was so brilliant, right? So, here's someone you care about; here's their experience, saying, 'Let's read an article on that.' Now all of a sudden we know about rationing. And then every other time there was a reference to rationing in the book, their level of knowledge was dramatically increased. So they understood more of the novel. The allusions, the hints, the subtle implications of the novel about hardship and scarcity--all of a sudden they were picking up on them. And then they read an article on Victory Gardens; and blackout curtains. So they read a lot of nonfiction; but it was engaged and enveloped in this narrative of the fiction itself. And that made them comprehend more depth in both texts. So, there's kind of this synergistic relationship. And I so I started doing that--I thought this was a brilliant idea. So, I started applying it with my own kids, you know, when I read aloud to them, we stop when there's something interesting and we read a short article on it. And we find out a little bit about it. Whereas reading a book about, that takes place in 12th century Korea--it's a beautiful novel called A Single Shard--with my daughter. And we stopped and we read about kilns, and celadon pottery. And so, she started to understand why nonfiction exists. And to get an ear for nonfiction and what it sounds like, and to even want to look things up. And her experience with that novel was enriched and made deeper. And I think that, again, we've given short shrift for the power of knowledge and how important knowledge is in understand and in reading. So I think if you did this intentionally as an adult you would enrich your own experience. If you stopped and not just looked up words but looked up ideas by reading a little bit about them as you're reading. Many of us do this. You would increase your context, your knowledge, about the things that were, the events that were happening in the book; and you would probably take twice as much away from it. But it would also be kind of a fascinating and engaging and enriched experience. So I don't see any reason why you couldn't apply that in your personal reading life, as well.

Russ Roberts: That's great advice.

55:50

Russ Roberts: Now, you are part of Uncommon Schools. We talked about them the last time we talked, in 2013. Remind listeners what the Uncommon Schools Project is about, and give us an update on how you are doing.

Doug Lemov: Thanks. We are a nonprofit; and we run 49 schools in impoverished communities around the Northeast: Camden, New Jersey; New York, New Jersey, Brooklyn, Boston, Rochester, and a couple of other places in upstate New York. Generally, communities where 90% of the kids grow up in poverty; very few kids graduate high school and a handful of kids go on to college. And the idea is, we want to build schools where everyone goes to college and everyone is prepared to succeed in college. And it sort of led to my work because the question is, what do you have to--you have to engineer every decision and every interaction to be as productive and as positive as possible to have that happen. So we have 49 schools. They are doing really well, with great teachers and great school leaders, and basically 100% of our kids who graduate from high school go on to college. They've been successful there at a much higher rate than--and you would predict we still have a long way to go to making sure that every kid who gets into college persists and stays in college. And on the traditional measures of state test scores and things like that, we've been able to dramatically outperform expectations you would have for kids in poverty. And one recent study noted that several years in one of our schools basically eliminated the effects, the socio-economic effects of poverty. So, through the diligent work, diligent hard work of everyday teachers trying to be a little bit better every day, it just shows you what a powerful thing a great teacher, a great classroom, a [?] education can be; and I think that's where we come from with this book, Reading, and my other book, Teach Like a Champion, which is the one I derive our knowledge of what great teachers actually do. And that we want to honor teachers by studying them and learning from them the best among teachers. Professions that have stature and status, practitioners of that profession participate in building the knowledge base of the profession. Doctors participate in building the knowledge base among doctors of medicine. And to me that's a big part of building the stature of the teaching profession, is finding the best teachers, honoring them by studying what they do, and saying we want to learn from what you do and share it with people around you. And so that's kind of the principle behind these books, and to the degree that there are useful ideas in them, like embedding nonfiction, they all come from great practitioners on the front line.

Russ Roberts: And what kind of--how would you describe these schools? Public, private, charter?

Doug Lemov: They are public charter schools. And so kids come to us by lottery. There's incredible demand for school choice, and American cities and school systems are not where they need to be. There are great charter schools; there are great district schools; but the number of seats in grade schools is sort of lacking, so there tend to be a lot of applications for our schools; and when we have more applications than we have seats we choose kids by lottery, kids at random. They are public school kids and they come to us and they work hard. And we try to prove that the outcomes can be different.

Russ Roberts: In 5 years, how many schools will there be? If there are 49 now, what do you expect there to be in 5 years?

Doug Lemov: That's a great question. We hope to keep going. We want to make sure that every school we run is great and does right by every family that enrolls their kids. So if I had to say, maybe in 5 years we'll be at 60 or so. There are lots of people who will tell you when you start being successful at something to grow exponentially; and maybe there's some fields where that can work.

Russ Roberts: Don't listen to them. They are fools.

Doug Lemov: Yeah. I think I've seen more than one good idea in the education sector broken by trying to grow it too fast. So we are trying very hard to make sure we are careful and considered in our rate of growth.

Russ Roberts: Are you influencing non-charter schools through your books?

Doug Lemov: That's probably the most exciting aspect of the work that I do. I do full-time teacher training; I think I have the best job in the world. I study teachers at work in their classrooms and then I write about it and share about it in books and do training on it. And over time, I just think that educators are incredible people in this country. They do incredibly hard work, often under tough conditions. People don't generally cry or scream at you in your daily work. Well, maybe there's a lot--I don't know about your daily work, Russ. But generally I don't think that they do. But teachers do maybe the most important work in our economy, under really difficult conditions, knowing that they won't be compensated maybe as well they might be in other fields. And they do great, great work at it. And they are just good people. And increasingly as we do this work, they have been really receptive to looking at this work and thinking about how we teach better and what the decisions that we make in the course of teaching are. And so our workshops are increasingly--they are 50% charter schools and 50% district schools. And it makes us really happy that when you have things that are helpful, the teachers, most of them don't really care where the idea comes from. They just want things that work, and work for kids. And so I do think there are great opportunities to bridge with some people, believed to be [?]. For us, any child in a classroom that is better is a victory. And any child in a classroom that isn't, is a loss. So we don't particularly care--we want all classrooms to be better in every type of school. And we've been struck by how overwhelmingly most teachers believe that and are positive about that. And you can hear people shouting about, you know, 'Charter versus district,' or this versus that; but I think they are just a minority of people, and most people just want to focus on getting better for kids as much as they can. And that's one of the great things about the teaching profession.

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COMMENTS (24 to date)
Drobviousso writes:

Blackhawk Down and Blade runner. Both by Ridley Scott.

GoT may or may not be better.

Steve Bacharach writes:

I like a lot of Doug's ideas, but I was several times struck by his intellectual hubris. I'm also quite wary of the times he claimed lots of research to back up some points.

I think this episode was recorded before the presidential election. I wonder how the mood of the discussion might have changed had he been able to ruminate on the bifurcation of the electorate in 2016 based on educational levels.

S Holt writes:

Like you, I've never watched "Game of Thrones" but I have read it. The irony to using it as an example is that it started as a VERY popular book series years before the HBO show came out. It took George RR Martin many years between sequels so new book releases were big events for readers.

This led to a bit of reader/viewer snobbery when social media would be buzzing about some plot twist in the show that readers had known about for years.

One side effect of the show is that sales of the books have increased. It's an interesting question as to what overall impact GoT has had on reading.

D writes:

It's odd to me that literature and art are picked apart and often discussed in ways that has me running for the door. It's the analytic and sterile approach to understanding for nonfiction and music that reduces a work to the institutional level. The educational system then pretends that they are showing us how to look thru a window into the world of xyz. They think they're imparting a thirst for discovery that grows in the pupil over time. When Bob Dylan was asked what do his lyrics mean he would often say I don't know. So, what makes a good teacher or writer? Imagination!! I didn't recall that ever being discussed in the interview. Reading so we can discuss these concepts within conversation is questionably a narrow approach. If you approached a jazz musician and started talking about how Bird used the extended chord tones in solo improvisation he wouldn't even talk to you. However, in an institution it's labored over as part of the required course work. Are we designing instruction about what we think is important because we lack the desire to create work? That it's is easier to analyze? When we gaze at the landscape and see and feel
Something bigger than us do we then start discussing why it is so beautiful? If we can teach creativity and imagination it is my hope the piles of non fiction medical liturature I've read will have a flow, an appeal that it currently lacks. All of the man made entities on our planet have been the result of imagination and that leads to discovery. Post analysis of work is secondary. A person with imagination can grasp post analysis concepts better.

Charles Mann writes:

Why is GoT considered lower quality than the other novels mentioned in the episode? Who gets to decide what is "culturally important"? It seems to me that this is a fairly common complaint from the "elites" that their favorite books and/or ideas aren't considered relevant in today's climate.

JTC writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Behrang Amini writes:

Interesting discussion. There are three ways of processing this episode:

1) Writing and reading on paper as technology. Through this lens, we have two people lamenting the fact that an older technology is being supplanted by newer ones. For people like me who learned on paper, it's very difficult to read on electronic devices, but no evidence is provided that older technology is superior for all people. Perhaps young people will learn to learn as well or even better on electronic devices.

2) Top-down vs. Bottom-up. Millions of kids and young people are deciding that reading is not stimulating enough. The bottom up response from educators and entertainers is that they will have to catch up and provide the next generation with material that will engage them. The top-down approach of Doug Lemov and Russ Roberts is to fight the change (e.g., by limiting screen time for kids, etc.).

3) "Difficult writing" as a fashion or affectation (for social signaling) whose time has passed. In the old days, the only way to signal you had a proper upbringing or enough leisure time was to quote some Cicero. Social signaling is now what kinds of TV shows you watch (Kardashians vs. Downton Abbey vs. Game of Thrones).

The times, they are a' changin'.

Rajanikant Mohan writes:

The section of this econ talk about reading to children and how the voice can be used simplify the syntax using voice modulation was very revealing to me.

it also explains why many adults love Audio Books. I guess some of us just like being read-to, no matter that I am almost 40.

SwededErik writes:

Great podcast.

Regarding the importance about reading for children, "WaveNet" - the Google DeepMind offspring and its future, ever increasing capabilities for complete voice syntax gives chilling consequences for the expectations on future parenting activities with their children.

https://deepmind.com/blog/wavenet-generative-model-raw-audio/

"All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace" and the Ghost in the Shell "chimera model for the glorious future of transhumanism" is a very bleak picture from a humanistic perspective, irrespective of the possible "improvements" in terms of productivity and future lesser needs of employment in the professional and family context.

We see the continual devaluation and lesser expectations on our fellow human peers, and our pathetic attempts to mimic productive machines, muddling the relationship between neurophysiological metaphors of the brain, defined as a complex, chemical/electrical network with finite capabilites, fallaciously interpreted as anything else than just that - a reductive metaphor! We lack the confidence and mental rigor to truly treasure our inner qualities and embrace even our fallibilities - an ever unique aspect of the human intellect.

Perhaps the future AI-simulated empathy and expressed interest in "authentic" topics and discussions will truly surpass our own capabilities, mainly by our own means of pursuing shallow thought and means of expression, our passive consumption rather than hard work and expressive, creative endeavour with delayed gratification.

Meet the proto ancestor to your future best friend or life coach/teacher:

https://youtu.be/UIWWLg4wLEY?t=45

All those moments (our own memories of our authentic and truly empathic interactions with each other) will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.
(Please note the irony of R Hauers last words, since they were improvised at the set - another creative and by definition therefore meaningful, human trait - which in this particular case transcended the original script and thereby immortalized the monologue )

Alas, I digress. Sorry for any inconvenience or confusion.

Conor Lennon writes:

First, I am a huge fan of Econtalk, I listen almost every week, use it in the classroom, use it for bonus and make-up assignments, and sing its praises to everyone who will hear me out. I have never commented to "complain." However, this week's episode was little more than two people wishing that things would stay the same. While listening, I could easily imagine Russ and Mr. Lemov lamenting (in 1440) about Mr. Gutenberg and the negative effects his printing press would have on existing ways of communicating knowledge and information.

The podcast's premise was fine: Reading is a skill that requires practice, progress and development are slow and hard to observe, but grappling deeply with information has incredible rewards.

Unfortunately, the podcast quickly turned into a diatribe about what people were not reading (such as classic texts) and how they were reading (on electronic devices). The issues discussed were well beyond the guest's understanding of research in those areas.

The issues also had no bearing on the podcasts premise: deep reading is a valuable skill. I think, in their defense, the guest and Russ were trying to explain that somehow electronic devices made deep reading more difficult. That there were new, modern distractions. But Russ is an economist and should be couching that debate in terms of opportunity cost. The claim they are making is really that the opportunity cost of reading has increased, causing a fall in the quantity and quality of books read. However, that claim is not supported by evidence and Russ would not let someone making such a claim about the effects of a government policy or trade restriction get away with such flimsy arguments.

Russ himself is constantly reminding his readers of the dangers of confusing causation and correlation. I would wager the proportion of people reading Shakespeare, Lee, Homer, Twain, Salinger, and so on has been falling for decards with barely a blip caused by the explosion in "screens" in the years since the iPhone debuted in 2007.

The Original CC writes:

Good guest, and I hope you have him back sometime.

I thought the discussion towards the beginning of why it's important to have read (for example) Marx and Freud was revealing. If I wanted to caricature the explanation, it would go something like this:

"Here are two discredited thinkers that the elites of today like to call 'intellectuals'. You should read them (when you could instead be reading Milton Friedman / Krugman / modern psychology) so that people can tell you went to college and you can make allusions that set yourself apart from blue collar people."

Did this strike anyone as wasteful signalling, not to mention outright snobbery?

I'm not picking on the guest or on Russ (I like them both), but I have found that it's hard to get an explanation as to why it's important to have read certain texts that don't boil down to something like the above.

The funny thing is that I could imagine that if Russ had had on his "economist hat" on instead of his "kids these days and their darn cell phones and video games" hat, he may have really pushed back on this idea.

Anyway, good podcast, good guest, and (as usual) good host.

Russ Roberts writes:

Conor Lennon,

I may have been misunderstood.

I have no trouble with reading on a screen or my children reading on a screen. I read a lot of books for EconTalk that way as well as books for personal reading. I also read a ton of shorter material on my computer or phone and enjoy it immensely. My computer and my phone give me a great deal of delight outside of reading--photographs, videos, and yes, podcasts.

What I was lamenting during the conversation was the death of concentration and the death of serenity that is the challenge of my phone and computer. I find twitter, email, and other distractions compelling. I struggle in a way I did not before the explosion of fabulous online content, to stay focused. The internet is an endless stream of fascination for me and I think, for many others.

I don't need a study to make that observation about myself.

I recently deleted Twitter from my phone. Glad I did.

Jeff writes:

1) What is meant by "reading rates are down?" I would think increased access to screens and increased electronic communications mean that people are reading more than ever.

2) Would previous guest Chuck Klosterman suggest that this conversation is meaningless? The conversation was largely a defense of the canon, and Klosterman illustrated how no one can predict how the canon evolves. Is there a point then to disparaging any written works? Everything we know is wrong.

3) If reading rate of literature is down, is that bad? I didn't feel this question was answered besides a discussion of signalling. If reading is done just to signal, is that really reading? What if tastes are evolving away from literature as we know it just as they evolved away from epics and the oral tradition?

4) Remember the "Western" tradition isn't the only tradition! How does reading vary in the histories of India/China? What do the cultural histories of 1/3 of the world's population have to say about the necessity of reading? Look at the differences. Is reading as the guest and Russ discuss a uniquely "Western" outlook?

Greg Alder writes:

Stimulating episode that makes me want to sink into a good book. Thanks.

Does anyone else not use "allude" and "refer" interchangeably? I'd always thought that an allusion was an indirect reference. But maybe I'm just a pedantic former English teacher.

Conor Lennon writes:

Russ, thanks for taking the time to respond. I understand the personal aspect to your comments om the podcast, and I agree (I should be reading now rather than responding to you!).

I just would have preferred a little more economics in the podcast:

1. Why are people turning away from the serenity? The opportunity cost is now too high? Has there really been a drop in reading due to screens? Where is the evidence? I'm pretty sure I would find some other distraction if I didn't have my iPhone to distract me.

2. What are the economic rather than mainly social or personal consequences of less reading or are those one and the same?

3. Is there less reading occurring in general? Is there economic evidence, particularly in the book/publishing industries, of this? I'm talking wages, employment, book prices, stock prices of book companies, and so on.

jw writes:

My profile for reference:

"Madame Bovary" was my kryptonite in freshman English, unbearable. But loved Chekhov and AC Doyle, read the complete works unassigned. I always loved and now almost exclusively read non-fiction and have preferred it to fiction since then (reality IS stranger and more interesting than fiction). I print out any email or report longer than three pages, there is no question that it easier to understand. My wife easily reads 100+ fiction books a year. Neither ever saw GoT. That being said:

- JK Rowling deserves her billion dollars. Anyone who could get a 10 year old boy to read a several hundred page book and then on to 5-600 page sequels as a teen can't be overpaid. Why is Harry Potter less regarded than Oliver Twist?

- As with all modern educational theory, why is there an assumption that the educational establishment can overcome a lack of parenting? Two very involved parents debating this is exemplary, but what do Lemov's underprivileged students' parents think (or even more interesting, parents who aren't self selected since they didn't apply to his school)?

- The number of great works never goes down. Time is short. How do students (and their parents) who aren't going to be English teachers prioritize?

- On the bit on math: I sincerely believe that the slide rule should be brought back into high schools. People would be more familiar with estimation, significant digits and orders of magnitude. When most people see $890 million dollars and 6 trillion dollars, they don't really understand the vast difference between the figures.

- Are audiobooks comprehended as well or better than reading? Is there any research? Do the last couple hundred Econtalks constitute a book length survey of economics?

Rich writes:

Russ,

Excellent podcast, very interesting. I don't think there is any change in people's ability to concentrate. Part of my job is managing software engineers. They will focus on what they are reading for several hours at a time without breaking away to chat or twitterfy, or whatever.

What they do is the ultimate close reading, and writing. What's interesting is just how unlike the classics it is. It's reading and writing to build the thinking / logic for how all our machines who serve us now and will do for centuries to come. They are currently writing the new classics.

A good software engineer will write 10 good lines of code a day. It's then peer reviewed by a colleague. Plenty of 'close reading' there. In fact millions of people are doing this all day every day as their jobs! There's never been so much of it!

There is always going to be a distribution of intelligence. People who now spend time in Facebook land scraping a 5 min message together never wrote or read a thing 100 years ago. Conversely, those at the top write and read even more than they did in the past. There's never been so much written and read!

And there's never been so many hours spent doing close reading AND writing. The subject isn't how people work (the classics and philosophy) it's how machines work. Fascinating really.

We are living in a new world. Software reproduces, competes with other software, uses energy and eventually dies as newer fitter code and systems evolve to replace it. Read any biology text and you will see that this is the definition of life.

There's a whole world of close reading going on. When next you fire up your 'smart' phone remember that it's the people who design them that are smart. It's the software engineers who write the code behind your buttons who are smart. And every time you press a button they are finding ways to take money off you, because they are clever.

You have to look in a different place for close reading. It's building the planes you fly in, the cars that you drive and will soon drive you and is guiding your eyeballs as you read these words. The first rule of The Matrix is to know that you are in it. Doing something about is much trickier, just as the film describes :)

SaveyourSelf writes:

Around 46:00 Doug Lemov said, “The spoken language and written language are very different,” and later, “Verbalizing it brings the story to life in a way that nothing else does.”

I’d like to pile on support for those statements. In med school we were taught that the area’s of the brain where visual information and acoustic information are processed are not the same, which may explain why they are experienced differently—they happen in different places. I don't think we were taught that they do not necessarily have equal processing power, but I think it's a safe assumption. Recently I stumbled on some evidence that supports that assumption.
I wrote a book last year and, while revising it, I noticed something odd. If I read through a passage in my book looking for errors, I would frequently miss even large errors in spelling or syntax. Even with absolute focus and no distractions for 5 consecutive read-throughs, I found my work was full of errors. It was hard to find people willing to proofread so I learned how to get my computer to read my text back to me. The computer does not have much inflection and his pronunciation is frequently off but it was free and available and that was something. Anyway, I noticed that when the computer is reading to me, I can be dancing around the room, cleaning the house, with my whole family doing things around me but if even a single letter was out of place in a word, it would catch my attention as though a fire alarm had gone off.
SaveyourSelf writes:

Jeff wrote, “Everything we know is wrong.”

Jeff, this made me laugh and could very well be my favorite quote of all time. Thanks.

Rich wrote, “What they [computer programmers] do is the ultimate close reading, and writing.”

Great point!

Emma Casey writes:

I find lots of the assumptions here rather confused.

A claim that "reading rates" are down seems either to be obviously false, or to be using a weirdly narrow definition of "reading". Reading rates for books made out of dead trees is down. But when was the last time you spent more than 5 waking hours without reading something? I'm honestly struggling to think of such a time. I'm reading constantly. Which was just never true in the past.

A description of "screens" as either "distractions" or as "isolating" seems rather alien to me. I use my screens to socialise. That's where my friends are. Heck, without my screens I'd never have reached out and had a (limited, narrow, but non the less real) social interaction with the people here reading this. Russ, you say above you've deleted twitter because you don't want the distraction. Do you not find cutting yourself off from the friends you met on twitter isolating?

I agree with the description of most high cultural knowledge (Thackery, Marx etc) as something that "marks you as a university graduate". The problem is that it marks you as what a university graduate was in 1950, a small, elite group with a common set of cultural references that are not shared by the wider population. I think it's important to recognise that it used to be very rare to be part of this group. The thing that's changed is inflated admission numbers to places called "college" have tricked us into thinking this elite group is now large. People who go to Ivy League are probably as likely to know Marx and Shakespeare now as they ever were, people who didn't are as likely as *they* ever were. Just now more of those people have college degrees so our expectations of them have increased.

It seems like we're comparing the ordinary people of our day to the elites of the past. I'd like to throw in a reminder that the protestant ideal (everyone reads the key text on their own without intermediation) has never in fact been true. There have always been different sub-cultures, different levels of sophistication. If we go back 100 years and ask ordinary people in the street to catch a reference to the declaration of independence or the KJB they'd have failed. The difference is that we don't know much about those people's stories because history only preserves the elites.

Robert Swan writes:

Like Rich, I don't think the ability to read is in any great decline. There might be something of the curmudgeonly old man at play in the talk. Sure, you first learn to read as a child, and are pretty accomplished by the time you're 20, but I think you continue filling in the gaps as you get older. It ends up all too easy to lament "the young people of today".

At about 18, I read one of my mother's favourite books: Hatter's Castle by A.J.Cronin (quite a melodrama). Recently, nearly 40 years on, I reread it. Very well written, but what really struck me was its massive vocabulary (e.g. sessile, fulgent, inspissated, lancinating all occurred within a few pages). The 18 yo Robert couldn't be bothered with a dictionary, just wanting to get on with the story. These days I'm not in so much of a rush, took my time and enjoyed the book at a deeper level.

As an aside on the pitfalls of modern technology, this edition was evidently an OCR scan of an old copy. Old printing defects and OCR conspired to give me some double takes. The silliest was a sentence where the people were on their way home from church "folio wing a long sermon". You'd think, having saved so much on typesetting, they might have employed a proofreader or two.

Anyway, having agreed with Rich, it's now time to disagree with him. If it was controversial to award the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan, what will the reaction be when the Nobel Committee awards it for someone's beautiful computer code?

You could arguably liken crafting fine software to writing a very strict form of poetry, but I think it is a much closer match to mathematical proofs. I have seen code that read like it had been written by James Joyce. That spoke of muddled thinking, not great artistry.

It just crossed my mind that (far too many) years ago I raised a question on Usenet about software commenting style. It wasn't long before someone pointed out the parallel with mathematics.

Here endeth the ramble.

Mark writes:

Doug Lemov is great (loved Practice Perfect)...and great discussion.

The only quibble I'd have (a fun quibble) is with Russ' assertion that books are always better than the movies. Almost always, but, there are definitely exceptions. ...Last of the Mohicans, The Godfather, MASH...


Mark writes:

I'd love to hear an interview with ED Hirsch. His "Cultural Literacy" assertion hits square-on with the Lemov's argument about the need for familiarity with the classics, etc.

Trent writes:

A very interesting podcast that I'm going to need to listen to again. A few thoughts:

* Agree that the book is almost always better than the movie - I'd argue that "The Godfather" is one exception.

* How often do Econ students read Adam Smith today? Or Bastiat? Or any of the authors of the foundation of economic theory?

* I've taken my share of long-distance drives, and this podcast helps me realize why I seem to like to do it so much - books on tape (now CD). I'm away from computers/phone screens....I'm uninterrupted in listening to something that I've selected/planned for (always unabridged)....and I'm focused on the text. And I can tell you where I was driving for the great books that really stand out.

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