People of the Book? Not really

One of the biggest surprises for me as an immigrant to Israel was seeing that the so-called “people of the book” really don’t read much.

I’m not talking about reading newspapers, which Israelis do quite a lot (according to a 2012 Ynet article an impressive 84 percent of Israelis over the age of 20 say they read newspapers) or reading emails. I’m referring to reading books, whether it be David Grossman’s latest novel or Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Sapiens.

Of course, declining book reading habits are a worldwide problem and Israelis may not even be the worst culprit.

Finding figures on worldwide reading habits is slightly tricky. In a 2016 World Culture Score Index measuring actual reading hours, India topped the list, followed by Thailand and China, the Philippines and Egypt. America fell in at 22 on that list, while Israel, along with Finland and Iceland, didn’t make the top 30 countries.

A 2017 World’s Most Literate Nations study measuring the so-called literate health of 60 countries based on five categories ranging from libraries to newspaper to education found some different results. In this study, all five Nordic countries (Finland, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden,) topped the list, while Israel came in at 19, just after Belgium and before Poland.

Yet in America, which ranked number seven on that more recent study, many have bemoaned the dwindling number of readers. This is something I hear echoed less in this country. That’s a major part of the problem.

Reading, like many good habits, must be encouraged in youth. Strong childhood readers invariably grow up to be strong adult readers.

Several months ago, I wrote about the fact that Israelis don’t know how to write. A big reason was that in the Israeli school curriculum the most advanced writing achieved at grade 12 is only a short essay, something most Americans master in sixth grade.

A similar dynamic exists when it comes to reading, not surprising since there’s an obvious link between good readers and good writers.

Having had children study several years in both public and private elementary schools in the United States, I was impressed at how rigorously American elementary school teachers encourage reading. Students in my son’s fourth grade public school, for example, were required to read at least six books a year on their own. When my daughter was attending sixth grade at Jewish Day School near Washington D.C., there was a chart in which students were given stars every time they finished a book which made for a healthy competition.

There is nothing comparable in Israeli elementary schools.

One primary factor is the lack of affordable books in Israel. Anyone who has shopped in Steimatsky can testify that books in Israel are very expensive, which I understand makes them prohibitive to many families. No doubt the smaller market here is a major factor for this, but this doesn’t seem to have affected reading in Finland and Iceland – both of which have smaller populations than Israel.

I’m also surprised that the native ingenuity has not resulted in some innovative solutions for cheaper books. Because there are solutions. For example, when my children studied in the US they often came home — every week or so — with flyers and order forms from Scholastic Books that offered an array of young adult books at reduced prices. The books could be ordered via the school which received free books and other class resources in return.

If something similar cannot be done in Israel, then students could, perhaps, be organized to exchange books among themselves for limited periods. Or there could be calls for parents to donate used books to schools.

The obvious place for offering free books is underutilized in Israel. I refer, of course, to libraries. While I was raised two children in Tel Aviv, I knew of few parents who took their kids to the library. Yet in America, going to the library is considered a pleasurable after-school activity. That’s because the atmosphere is warm, inviting and fun. Recommended books are prominently displayed, there are comfy chairs like beanbags splayed on the floor for reading and a kindly librarian on hand to suggest titles. My children were always eager to go to the library in the United States, as were many of their peers there. And, of course, my children always left with a big stack of books.

The same atmosphere existed in Barnes and Nobles whose children, and adult sections, are equally inviting for visitors to come and page through books, even with nearby access to Starbuck’s coffee, without any pressure to buy.

The best way to get kids to read is to have parents who love reading. I learned to worship books because my father was an avid reader and book collector, and I’m pretty sure my children read because they always saw their parents reading.  So, let’s read for all the obvious reasons — because it expands knowledge, leads to innovation and invention and is enjoyable. But also, because we’re helping create the next generation of the people of the book.

About the Author
Former journalist -- The Washington Times, USA Today, New York Daily News, Women's International Net -- among others. Co-author -- Arafat: A Political Biography (Oxford, 2001), Hating America (Oxford, 2003). Completed the Masters in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan.
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