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Proof! Books made you smart; digital media make you stupid

June 10, 2010

Spencer Wells, scientist, explorer, all-round expert.

At a time when the iPad is changing publishing as we know it (right?) and e-books are the fastest growing part of the business, a new study has identified the single greatest influence on a child’s education: The number of books in the home.

That’s dead-tree books, let me add. And how many books? A minimum of 500, reports LiveScience.Com. And they have to be physical books that a child can see on the shelves. An iPad or Kindle nestling 3,000 books in its innards is, to a child, just another electronic gadget.

“You get a lot of ‘bang for your book,'” said study researcher Mariah Evans, a sociologist at the University of Nevada, Reno. “It’s quite a good return-on-investment in a time of scarce resources.”

University of Nevada sociologists collected data from 73,249 people in 27 countries before concluding that having a 500-book library in the home advanced a child’s education by an average of 3.2 years.

Indeed, the presence of books in the home is twice as important as the father’s education level, and more significant than whether the child grows up in China or the United States.

And if you can’t have 500 books, even a few are better than none. Having as few as 20 books in the home exerts a positive impact on a child’s educational achievement. But the more the better.

This news gives me a frisson of smug self-righteousness. For awhile now  I’ve laid off preaching the perils of the Internet, e-books and digital culture in general. After all prophets of doom grow tiresome, even if they’re right. Jeremiah’s own brothers beat him up, and Cassandra wore out her welcome in Troy long before the wooden horse showed up.

Nicholas Carr has no such worries. In the last few years, he’s emerged from a pack of Jeremiahs (Sven Birkerts, Neil Postman) to become our leading anti-digital doomsayer.

Carr believes, as I do, that computers, e-books and especially the Internet and hyperlinks are rewiring the brain to be more agile but less capable of immersive reading, deep thought, or contemplation — hence the title of his new book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

The Shallows, just out, already has thoughtful, mostly favorable reviews from Julia Carr at the Chicago Tribune and Robert Burton at the San Francisco Chronicle.  Carr has a decent website (and no, this is no more ironic than an environmentalist owning a car) at

Of course, a lot of smart people disagree with Carr. A report by the Pew Research Center concluded the Internet doesn’t make us dumb — but it was based on a poll of scientists and researchers, not on new data. For more, see More impressively, Maria Bustillos attacks Carr’s thesis on multiple fronts in The, concluding “the Internet makes you smarter!”

To help you decide (obviously you don’t have time to read an actual book, right?), consider this quote from a recent Carr essay in Wired magazine and see if it doesn’t strike home:

“What kind of brain is the Web giving us? That question will no doubt be the subject of a great deal of research in the years ahead. Already, though, there is much we know or can surmise—and the news is quite disturbing. Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.”

Even if Carr is right (and he is, so there), can anything be done abut it? Or is technology, as my friend, poet Edmund Skellings says, an unstoppable — even evolutionary– force?

Funny you should ask, because I just happen to be reading a fascinating book called Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization, by Spencer Wells, a biologist and genetics researcher. Fascinating book about the unintended consequences of progress.

Take the development of agriculture — one of the signal events in human history, like the invention of the wheel, the development of writing, and now, possibly, the spread of digital technology. Agriculture: A good thing, right?

Well, yes, dependable food sources ended the Stone Age and soon gave rise to cities, civilizations and other benefits. But did you know that almost all disease was absent from our hunter-gatherer forebears? Everything from measles to malaria to small pox began afflicting human kind when we domesticated animals, fostering close contact that allowed germs to leap the species barrier.

Indeed, cave men were healthier, ate more nutritious foods (and much greater variety), lived longer and had almost no dental cavities compared to their children, only a few generations down the line.

So open that iPad, buy that Kindle, get your books online instead of at a local store. Convenient as hell, sure — but it shortchanges your children, and it might be making you stupid. And it’s a Pandora’s Box of consequences yet to be seen. I don’t think they’re going to be pretty.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Tommy Smart permalink
    June 10, 2010 2:26 pm

    Am I the only one who finds this study dubious? Here’s is another study that gives me more questions than answers. The mere presence of books has this type of effect? I found a link to the study cited, yet I need an account to read anything more than the abstract.

    The Live Science article makes no mention of interaction between parents, whether or not the children present in the homes read any of these books, or the types of books. My home was full of books ( < 500 ) and yes, I did graduate High School, barely.

    • rachel permalink
      June 10, 2010 3:55 pm

      Perhaps your barely graduating high school had to do more with the education system then your level of intelligence.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 10, 2010 10:58 pm

      The fact that you are an avid reader, Tommy, here 12 or 13 years after high school, is a testimony to the effectiveness of the books in your parents’ home. I’ve read many times before — this is not the first such study — that having books in the home, just surrounding children with books, has a significantly positive influence on children. Even better is when children see parents reading the books. Best of all is when parents and children read together, even (or especially) for years after children can read for themselves.

  2. Connie permalink
    June 10, 2010 2:57 pm

    The premise makes a certain amount of sense on a basic level. If a house is full of books, at least one parent cares deeply about reading. S/he has probably taken time to read to the child and presumably passes the love of books and reading on. Maybe the paradigm shifts as time psases and we all end up with a Kindle or an iPad. Though…reading to a child must be somewhat awkward on an iPad.

    Strangely, I did not grow up in a house jammed with my parents’ books, even though my dad was an English teacher. But I always had plenty of my own – and I read to my little brother and sister from the time they were old enough to pay attention.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 10, 2010 11:03 pm

      Coincidentally enough, I was not surrounded by my parents books, either, although my dad was a devoted newspaper and magazine reader, and my folks did encourage me to read them — although they quickly grew perturbed by the reading monster they had created. As I say above, I do believe the mere presence of books is salubrious to a child. And I find this study credible. And reading on a screen is not the same as reading on a page.

  3. rachel permalink
    June 10, 2010 4:05 pm

    I love studies like this. And in many ways, I think that’s exactly what studies are supposed to do: spur more questions.

    I grew up in a house full of books and I can say that it worked. I agree with Connie, this probably had a lot to do with the fact that living in a house full of books was important, but it was largely important because of the people, my parents, who put them their and their relationship to them. Both my parents read a lot, and they read to us, and they encouraged us to read, and be curious.

    I do like the idea of the books, the actual physical objects making the difference.

    • Tommy Smart permalink
      June 10, 2010 5:23 pm

      I do not disagree with you or Connie. I wish I was able to read this study, because it has given me some good questions. I did not make the remark about studies in an attempt to downplay them, rather it was an observation on learning. I, too often, believe I will study something and come away with a complete understanding, when in actual practice I come away interested and questioning another tangent. Like, Russian Nesting Dolls, I found there is something inside only to realize, wait, there’s more. How cool is that?

      I think the interaction between parents and children and the importance parents place on reading are the doll within the doll here.

      I am sure if my folks believed having 500 books in the house was enough to keep me in school, they would have tripled that number just to be safe.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        June 10, 2010 11:11 pm

        Tommy: Extra points for the Russian nesting dolls metaphor.

  4. Connie permalink
    June 10, 2010 5:02 pm

    I like that idea, too, Rachel…but I’m willing to admit 50 years down the road a reader can still learn to fall in love with books on whatever device we’re using to read then. I’d read on anything, even though I prefer actual books. (I still don’t have a Kindle. Hell I don’t even have a smart phone.) I mean, I would have no decorating scheme without actual books. I just like having them around.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 10, 2010 11:13 pm

      Connie, as you know, I believe immersive reading will die out within a generation if e-books replace the paper codex. As McLuhan says, let’s not forget, the medium is the message. And the message of a screen, even an iPad or a Kindle, is not about the contemplative reading a good novel requires.

  5. Tommy Smart permalink
    June 10, 2010 5:11 pm

    “This is as great an advantage as having university educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father.”
    Quoted from the study in question’s abstract
    So books are not twice as important as reported by Science Live, but just as important as the father’s educational level.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 10, 2010 11:18 pm

      You should have been a reporter.

  6. Candice Simmons permalink
    June 10, 2010 6:06 pm

    It would be nice if the study you cite is true and having lots of books around certainly can’t hurt. Still, I’m very skeptical.

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