Flex Your Lexicon

Wilber Schramm, an expert on the reading levels of newspapers, found that “an easier reading style helps [readers] to decide how much of an article is read. This [is] called reading persistence, depth, or perseverance….people will read less of long articles than of short ones. A story nine paragraphs long will lose three out of 10 readers by the fifth paragraph.” Most readers actually prefer reading news articles two levels below their capability because they are very busy so they need things they can read fast. Blogs, for example, are supposed to be short and clear so people can read them on the go. Newspapers are written between the ninth and eleventh grade levels, and common magazines like Reader’s Digest are written at about the ninth grade level.

Readers take longer to process bigger words and more complex sentence structure, so reading at a higher level is an investment in time. It’s not that they can’t read at a higher level, it’s that people won’t read longer things because they don’t have the time to. I think most people appreciate good writing that takes a little more effort to process because it is thought provoking, or it argues a difficult point. My hope is that if people had more time, they would read more and enrich their lives through literature.

Just like writing is for different purposes, reading should be for different purposes, too. Most of us never give literacy a second thought, reading street signs, labels, instructions, whatever comes into view. Many of us sit down in front of the computer, or pull out our phones or tablets to access news and social media, never staying in the same place for more than a few seconds, so an article needs to be pretty compelling to get us to finish it. We should take more time to read things more deeply. I think more in-depth reading makes us more intelligent and easier to converse with.

Let me illustrate my point with an analogy. Bacon tastes good, is high in protein, and provides long-lasting energy. Candy, on the other hand, tastes good, is high in sugar, and provides short-term energy. Most people don’t eat much candy because it just doesn’t do a lot in the way of nutrition. A person could go through life eating candy and be sustained (at least on a basic level), but she’d have to keep eating candy often to be able to keep up with how fast her body metabolizes it. Bacon, on the other hand, lasts for hours, and a person would last a lot longer physically on bacon than on candy. Plus, bacon tastes good with just about anything.

Good literature is the bacon of reading. It’s an investment in long-term satisfaction. Complex, thought-provoking material provides sustained mental energy that lasts for weeks, and even months. Like bacon, good books go with anything. Longer reading materials take a time commitment, but the result is deeper, smarter conversation. Worried about that awkward silence at a party or on a date? Bring up the last book you read, and spark a discussion. Or take your date by the bookstore, and choose something to read together; then you’ll always have a ready topic, and a reason to book another date.

If a person reads nothing but short articles, ads, Facebook posts and tweets, or starts articles and doesn’t finish them, then he’ll be sustained, just like with candy, for the short term. But he’d have to read a lot more of that fluffy stuff because it doesn’t have much in terms of long-lasting effects. It doesn’t give a person much to think about. One can spend hours on Facebook, but even posts in reply are usually short and quick, before something else grabs the attention. One might look up from the computer amazed at how much time was wasted scanning all that stuff.

Surprising book facts. (Credit: RobertBrewer.org)

Reading is a gift that many people take for granted. Eleven million illiterate Americans eke out a very limited existence only with the aid of a few others who know their dirty secret. More people should make a point of reading something of substance, packed with brain-nourishing ideas. It’s a workout program for the brain, and just like a fitness workout, the energy from a book can be felt for a long time after it is finished.

So don’t be afraid to flex your lexicon. Regular literary workouts have lasting effects, so invest some time in a novel. It may have been awhile since you read a book, but don’t worry. You haven’t forgotten how, and once you remember that you enjoy it, you’ll make a habit of it. And that is time well spent.