Is Reading Boring?

03/18/2015 03:33 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2015

Years ago when I was in the eighth grade, our English teacher, Mr. Habib, struggled to convince us Emily Dickinson was right: "There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away." Since most of the class didn't know what a "frigate" was, it proved a hard sell.

March is National Reading Month. These days, reading is often no easier a sell, and a major culprit standing in the way is the allure of digital devices.

The Pew Research Center reported last year that 23 percent of Americans hadn't read any kind of book over the past 12 months. (In 1978, Gallop gauged non-book-readership at a mere 8 percent.) The National Endowment for the Arts brought its own glum news in 2012: More than 53 percent of adults hadn't read at least one literary work the past year.

Why read? Because we love stories. To learn something new. Maybe to improve our economic or social prospects. Or sometimes because we are bored.

Think of those magazines piled up in doctors' offices, intended to keep us occupied while waiting our turn. Today, many of us whip out our phones instead, though the principle of killing time is the same. If we only make it halfway through the travel piece on Corsica or a game of Candy Crush, we readily abandon ship, rarely feeling the need to resume where we left off.

That's not the kind of reading, however, that matters. Instead, I'm thinking about persistent reading. It might be a novel, a biography, sci-fi, or a romance. What matters is that we're hooked on the text. When interrupted, we return.

Watch young kids, and we easily spot who's a natural reader, refusing to put down the book at the dinner table or at bedtime. Traditionally, others have come to reading through mentoring or even out of boredom. You're 15 years old, and it's a rainy day at the beach. With nothing to do, you grudgingly pick up a book. During World War II, millions of special small, lightweight paperbacks -- the Armed Services Editions -- were distributed to members of the U.S. military around the world, helping them combat loneliness, alleviate the stress of battle, or cope with unending tedium. A number of those war-weary soldiers turned into devoted readers when they returned Stateside.

What about young people today? For them, is reading a palliative against boredom?

It appears not. Lately I've been asking university students what they did the last time they were bored. While a few responded by seeking face-to-face contact ("hung out with a friend") or doing something physical ("went for a run", "slept"), the vast majority resorted to digital technology: "watched Netflix", "Facebook" or "Internet."

Only one or two mentioned reading.

What's worse, I am also seeing the words "reading" and "boredom" paired in a troubling way.

For several years, I've been researching students' experiences when reading in hardcopy versus digitally. When I asked these young adults what they liked least about reading printed material, a couple of Americans and several from India complained it was "boring." Huh? Another respondent (himself a serious reader) helped me understand why. Nowadays, when he reads a printed book, he finds himself expecting or seeking interruptions: a ping announcing a message is waiting or a quick look at a friend's Twitter feed. Much as he loves print, it has come to feel too static.

Digital devices -- especially mobile ones like cell phones -- make it incredibly easy to entertain ourselves. Bored? Pull out your phone. Yes, when you bring up those Facebook status updates, you are technically reading. But not in a way that would satisfy Mr. Habib or Emily Dickinson.

The picture isn't all bleak. Despite those troubling national statistics, we also find success stories. Oprah's Book Club got vast numbers of non-readers to tackle challenging works. The Harry Potter series triggered a tsunami of reading, as did the likes of books by Stieg Larsson and then Gone Girl. Declaring 2015 the "Year of Books," Mark Zuckerberg has launched his own book club (naturally on Facebook).

During its initial run, Oprah's readers didn't have to cope with much digital distraction. Zuckerberg's do. And so do children and young adults for whom ubiquitous cell phones and tablets and laptops mean that boredom has a too-easy fix. If educators and parents want to raise the next generation of readers, we need to get serious about our strategies. Ideally, that means leading young people to naturally embrace reading. But there's also the intriguing option of engineering circumstances where there is no cell phone or Internet signal, and kids get bored enough to pick up a book.

Naomi S. Baron is professor of linguistics and executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning at American University in Washington, D.C. Her new book is Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (Oxford University Press, 2015).