Pssst! Want something to read?

Lecturer Nicholas Morton recalls his shock on being told that “Students don’t like reading”. He found this to be true – most of his students prefer computer games to books. In the Times Higher he describes his practical response to this situation

Recently, I decided to act on this expectation and launched a “Reading Challenge” to my history undergraduates. This voluntary event encourages them to read 20 books for pleasure during their degree. It is not an attempt to force on them a “canon” of worthy literature; it presents them with a wide range of books from which they select titles that interest them.

Those who wish to take part receive a long bibliography broken into sections, including 20th-century fiction, philosophy, short stories and so on. The idea is that they choose and read at least two works from each area until they have reached the required number. Successful participants will receive a certificate and a small prize, but this will not be large enough to be an incentive in its own right.

He says it is too early to judge whether it is a success, but the initial response from students has been positive. He hopes that the reading challenge will help to form informed, rounded human beings.

I wonder if this is something that would work in the sciences? What should science students be encouraged to read – popular science and science history, literary fiction, philosophy, lablit?

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we slip from print through to electronic information resources.
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17 Responses to Pssst! Want something to read?

  1. AJ Cann says:

    My recent experience( described here: ) is that this is an uphill struggle.

  2. Frank says:

    Alan – thanks for the link. Your Scireadr project sounds interesting. If those who did attend enjoyed it then perhaps they will encourage others by word of mouth. I agree that about once a month is the minimum to make it into a habit.

  3. Steve Caplan says:


    It is astounding to me, someone for whom reading is as essential as breathing, to find how many scientific colleagues (students–forget it!) claim that they have not read a book in 10 or 20 years (outside science). At one point I had some visions of opening an elective course for graduate students about science/medicine in literature (“Magic Mountain”, “Arrowsmith”, etc.). I’ve since wised up and seen “the reading on the wall” (sorry for the bad pun).

    • Frank says:

      Steve – re. bad puns, I have learnt to expect them from you 😉

      I agree it is surprising when someone tells you that they never read a book. But I suppose book-reading is a relative newcomer on the human scene; it is not something innate to our nature (whatever that means).

      I’m sure some of your students would be interested in the course you envisioned. Go on, give it a go – you could change someone’s life!

  4. AJ Cann says:

    @frank: I’m now regarding as a long term “culture change” project rather than a quick sprint. I’m still looking for tips on the engagement front though.

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    How depressing that intelligent, educated people need so much persuasion to read books.

  6. KristiV says:

    ::boggles:: I’ve always read novels and poetry, so it’s difficult to imagine not having any interest in them. OTOH, I don’t play any computer games, so can’t relate to their allure. Reading always seemed like very inexpensive entertainment, especially in grad school and as a postdoc – a few of us at the NCI had a book club and discussions that i remember very fondly.

    In addition to nighttime and weekend reading on my Kindle, I’ve always got a crime fiction novel to read at lunch (choice strongly influenced by Maxine at Petrona).

    • Frank says:

      I’m with you on computer games, though I must admit I am tempted by stupid games on my phone. I have a bit of a blind spot with poetry though. Sometimes I am moved by poetry that I encounter but mostly it leaves me cold. I need something more direct.

      Agree that reading is a pretty inexpensive habit, especially if you have a good public library nearby.

      I remember learning that there tends to be a falling off of the reading habit in the teen years, and I suppose for some people they never get back to it. I was lucky – my set book in English Lit was Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. I enjoyed the book and set about reading everything else he had written, which kept me reading through those years.

  7. Agreed about the wonderful inexpensiveness of reading books. Back in the pre-internet days (or at least pre-wifi), and when I was a serial mini-sabbatical-er, the second hand bookshops of my destinations were a major source of entertainment. No point in lugging books from Manchester to Sydney, say, when you could buy half a dozen novels you hadn’t read for a dollar or two apiece on arrival. If they were worth keeping you could ship them home by surface posts, or at special book rates. Bethesda in the 90s was another choice spot for second hand and remaindered books. The Boss and I remain keen charity bookshop-shoppers to this day, though nowadays we shop for childrens’ books too.

  8. Frank says:

    I remember book exchanges in some of those backpacker destinations too – just dump what you had finished and pick up something that took your fancy.

    But back to students and encouraging reading – any hints or creative ideas for Alan and others to try?

  9. Hadriane says:

    Mr Frank,

    I stumbled upon this and fancy your idea of a “Reading Challenge”. Although it was for history undergrads, you did leave a wide genre for students to explore outside their field of study. This is what I like to do when I do get around to a book. As a science student, I would be encouraged to read politics, science history and more stumbles like this.

  10. Frank says:

    Hadriane – thanks for your comment. I just realised that the formatting of my post went a bit wrong and two paragraphs that were supposed to be a quote from Nicholas Morton may have seemed to be about me. The Reading Challenge was actually the idea of Nicholas Morton.

    I agree that science history, including biographies of scientists, is a good genre for science students to explore. Some recommendations are here and at Amazon.

    • Hadriane says:

      Thank you Mr Frank for the recommendations. Much appreciated.. Will suggest this “Reading Challenge” to a lecturer of mine and see if it can fly over here.

      Over and out Mr Frank.

      Have a good day.