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Books Don’t Make You Smart

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Here is a lie we’ve all been told: books will make you smart.

This week, the Internet churns once more over the latest article denouncing adults who read young adult fiction. The argument is always the same: young adult/ thrillers/ romance/ sci-fi/ chicklit/ picture books/ subway maps are not as good for you as adult literary/ nonfiction/ dead Russians/ the calorie lists on Chipotle menus. Lovers of the former are always ready with a defense — either that the former really are as quality as the latter, or that not everything you put in your brain has to be good for you.

Rather than contemplating a new defense — surely, I could, as I write young adult fiction —I wondered instead why we keep seeing the same scuffle in different hats.

And I think it’s because of this untruth: books will make you smart.

I believe the book industry may be one of the few industries that promises you will actually become more clever if you buy their product. Car companies might swear you’ll look cooler in an Audi than a Kia, but they don’t tell you that you’ll actually become a better person behind the wheel of one. Computer companies might shout that their equipment is smarter, but they stop short of promising that your entire life philosophy will improve if you buy their products. When I bought my office chair, no one told me, “Well done. People who sit in leather chairs turn out to be stronger women.”

But we have this prevailing theory that books will make you smart, and it’s this theory that allows us to judge a book’s quality by how far it stretches your mind. According to this idea, if it doesn’t make you smarter, it’s a lesser book. It becomes a guilty pleasure, like food that doesn’t contribute to your daily vitamin requirement. Cue up the articles on the tragedy of the populace reading young adult, or turning to magazines, or — horrors, shall I whisper it — watching television in lieu of reading.

Don’t they know that reading makes you clever? Don’t they know that television and movies are for non-intellectuals? Hoi polloi turn the TV on. If you’re someone who’s going to be someone, you open a book.

But books aren’t smart: stories are.

Not all stories, of course. There are wise stories and flippant stories, stories that stretch your mind and stories that only make you laugh. Stories that are true and stories that won’t ever be true.

A book is merely a medium for carrying a story. So is a television series. So is a movie. So is a play, or a or a puppet show, a video game, a note from a stranger. The medium itself carries absolutely no promise of intellectual content. There are shallow books and world-changing movies. There are ridiculous non-fiction texts and complex young adult novels.

A book is just words. A movie is just images. These things can’t change you.

Only the story can.

So if we can accept that books can — and are meant to — fulfill all kinds of purposes, we can stop pretending that a good book only means a book that demands probing analysis. If we can further accept that genre is merely a jacket for the story, we can possibly also stop arguing that this shelf or that shelf in the bookstore has the corner on intellectual greatness. Someone who writes smart stories can put them into any form, any medium, any length — and they do. Look at the artists who work across several different forms. Do they grow more or less clever when their stories are filmed or shelved, packaged for grown-ups or packaged for teens? If you long for a mind-bending story, you can find them anywhere, if you look for them. If you’re looking for a stupid story, I promise you that you can find them anywhere, too. If you’re looking for grotesque generalizations, you’ll also find that confirmation bias is a powerful thing.

Books don’t make you smart. Stories do. And that is a truth I’ll defend to anyone.

  • I clicked the twitterbait! 🙂 I think the “stories make us smart” idea is what makes some stories able to give to us over and over and over. I can revisit AS YOU LIKE IT or FROG AND TOAD TOGETHER or TILL WE HAVE FACES or WRECK IT RALPH and be sideswiped in a new way each time. And it’s nothing to do with the kind of book/film/script–it’s all to do with story. (Heck, that Thai Mobile ad about giving without expecting anything in return tells an amazing story.) Thanks for the compelling thoughts.

  • Jeska

    Yes. This.

    What I seek is the quality of the experience, not the genre or age group or medium. I can find just as much joy in This Is Not My Hat as in The Graveyard Book or the Silmarillion, because of how well the stories are told.

    And some days, I need a shallow chick flick, some days I want explosions. (I HATED romantical movies when I was pregnant… Thank goodness Marvel has been putting out decent explosion movies lately.) Sometimes I want to learn something, or laugh or cry or remember or forget. It just depends on my mood. Glad I’m not limiting myself to just one source.

  • Thank you Maggie! This is honest and beautiful.

  • Well said, Maggie! In thinking about how I’ve engaged in this argument, I believe my focus has always been on “reading makes you smarter,” but I now believe that to be flawed in the same manner that you have pointed out that “books make you smarter” is flawed. After all, I know plenty of people who read poorly and the act of decoding letters on the page doesn’t have any effect on them other than to reinforce their (flawed) notion that they “can’t” or “don’t like to” read books.

    And, why does it have to be that books make a person “smarter”? Thinking about being changed–in our thoughts and feelings and opinions–by the story is more powerful and accurate a gauge of effect of the time spent engaged in any medium.

    Again, well said, Maggie.

  • I couldn’t agree more.
    Reading stories is beneficial, although not always in the same way. And often very ambitious books are very difficult to digest (at least, that’s the case in Poland, where “ambitious” books are sometimes just meditations on grim subjects, and very poetic at that.They lack stories, something for a reader to hold on too).

  • LKD

    Funny, many things I know that others don’t aren’t just from experience but from many books I’ve read. Everything you do in life leaves its mark, we’re always learning- I don’t care if you’re reading Goodnight Moon 🙂 And sometimes ‘clever’ literature doesn’t teach you anything if you’re not engaged. It’s like anything, if you’re moved, you’ve taken something with you. Stories have always been a form of teaching. In the end, what does it matter. Reading gives so many of us pleasure, and in a chaotic world,that in itself makes you smart for reading 🙂

    • BostonRedSoxFan

      Everything you said: Agreed. People take away something from books–and stories–differently. I have learned a lot from the many books I have read over the years. Reading books should entertain, educate and enlighten.

  • Tom Williams

    Interesting idea, but the author doesn’t exactly approach the topic scientifically.

    In contrast, see:

    TL;DR: It’s not what you read, it’s how you read it: brain activity when reading for pleasure vs reading the same material critically differs: reading critically uses a more complex cognitive process. So while this doesn’t really say anything about whether reading books makes you smart, it seems to indicate that what makes you smart is reading something you can think critically and deeply about, and actually choosing to read that material critically and deeply.

    • BostonRedSoxFan

      Well said

  • Sci Ence

    I did see a documentary once that claimed reading a story (as opposed to seeing it performed) causes physiological changes in the brain that incresed a person’s ability to empathise. This is basically because when you are reading a story you are imagining all the characters, its almost as if you are performing the play in your head giving you an almost acrors perspective of the charecters.

    • Saratje

      The fault with that theory is that people who lack an imagination to do what you describe, don’t read books in the first place because it won’t appeal to them if they can’t immerse into a character. So if only the imaginative people are left to read books, then it appears as if all readers can empathise better, while in reality those who have trouble learning to empathise, don’t read in the first place.

  • Sci Ence

    But when it comes to what you read I would say genre is much less important than content, and more specifically how much you relate to the characters.

  • AbbieT.

    I agree that the story is important and stirs our minds as well as our ability to think creatively. I also agree that there are stupid stories in books too. However, books tend to have more complexity and usage of more advanced vocabulary, unlike the majority of TV shows and newspapers who “dumb down” their words in order to reach a larger scope of viewers. I personally experience this method daily in the field of communications. I have had to “dumb down” many articles for the paper because my vocabulary is too advanced for the average user. (an advancement, I might add, that was a result of reading books instead of watching TV growing up) I am not trying imply that I am smarter than most, nor am I implying that TV is wrong. I am only pointing out that reading has elevated my ability to think critically and communicate effectively through an advanced vocabulary. In other words, books can make you smart.

    • Bizmu

      Couldn’t agree more. I’m kind of disappointed that the author of this article didn’t touch on this. While other medium of information like motion picture can relay information, they can’t do that in a way that books can.

    • OwensDefense

      Uh, no. You’re a moron. All that reading and you apparently never learned to never use a big word when a little one will do. Besides, books don’t teach vocabulary any more than television.

      • maggiestiefvater

        This isn’t Youtube. Abusive language isn’t going to be tolerated in my comments section. Delete.

  • MargaretRose7

    I agree that the YA/genre debate is silly. There is “quality” and “trash” (however you define them) in all literature. However, the books don’t make you smarter argument is more complex than suggested here. Medium has a prfound influence on how we process stories or any information. There has been considerable research on human cognitive development in relation to media/technology effects.

    For example, writing diminished human memory. We simply don’t have the capacity to retain information the way our ancestors did because we no longer need the ability. We gained other skills, but our brains adpated because of the oral to wriiten transition, just as are bodies adapted when we no longer had to regularly hunt for our food. Cell phones are having a similar effect on retaining numbers/addresses 🙂

    In terms of books versus visual media, we don’t cognitively work as hard when the image is given to us. A big advantage of reading is that we have to imagine scenes and characters. There’s a growing advocacy for parents to still have their children play make-believe and use old-fashioned toys rather than only tablets, games, and robots because the latter group isn’t providing the same imaginative mental work-out. Again, other skills are gained, and perhaps in a century or two, we’ll have adapted to whatever skills are required for us in the new society. But there are concerns that the lack of cognitive processing/imaginative work might have effects that could have negative consequences in the fure. We’ll see.

    Similarly, the multi-tasking nature of digitial media technology is now dimishing our concentration ability. People (and most of these studies are done on students or very young children) are less able to read an entire book (or even large chunks of a book) at a time than their counterparts 30 years ago (and they were less able to do so than their counterparts pre-TV). Or even read longer books at all (books are becoming “shorter” because we have more to do).

    See works by J.L Singer in the 1980s, Cliff Nass/Roy Pea, Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, and Signorielli, and more. And Marshall McLuhan would have some words with you that it’s story and not the medium 🙂

    P.S. I love action movies, comics, the CW, and all media formats, and I think there’s value to them all. I just wanted to point that there is some truth to books – not stories – making you smarter, and that people need to realize howh different media/technology does change your life in a lot of ways.

  • Dark Cheese

    Truth here. This “books make your smart” paradigm is a product of the same human cognitive error as the “religion makes you dumb” way of thinking. They both lead to an egoistic false intellectual delusion of oneself.

  • Dark Cheese

    Truth here. This “books make you smart” paradigm is a product of the same human cognitive error as the “religion makes you dumb” way of thinking. They both lead to an egoistic false intellectual delusion of oneself.

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  • Saratje

    What I also see is that there are many people who read a lot of books, take what they read for granted and then stubbornly present the knowledge from these books as facts. They lose the ability to reflect on the topic entirely. All the while being of opinion that by having read a lot of books, they are not only smart, but also right by default. Books are still written by human beings and the contents of older, classic books can be outdated and no longer applicable within the modern world, or outright wrong. An appalling culture seems to have grown during the past two decades, where public opinion seems to be that reading books equals being smarter or more right than those who do not read as many books.

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Maggie Stiefvater
Hi, I'm Maggie Stiefvater

Professional novelist by day and artist by night. I live an eccentric life in the middle of nowhere, Virginia with my charmingly straight-laced husband, two kids, and neurotic dogs. I’m the author of the Books of Faerie (LAMENT and BALLAD); the bestselling SHIVER trilogy (SHIVER, LINGER, FOREVER), and THE SCORPIO RACES.

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