Books – the Great Equalizer

Thanks to Mary, my wife, we did at least one thing right while our kids were growing up (notice how I snuck in there to grab some of the glory…).

We had books, lots and lots of books, for our kids. I can remember many nights reading to our three boys and starting to talk gibberish as I slowly nodded off, only to be awakened by one of them, telling me to get back to the story.

Once they got older, they started to read on their own, and fortunately, they’ve never really stopped. When we have video chats with our two oldest, part of every conversation is what books all of us are currently reading (I’m usually the slacker in the group, but I try to make up for it during the summer months). With our youngest son, one of our favorite places to hang out is Barnes & Noble, where he gets caught up with the latest in a wide variety of magazines.

Most people would probably assume that reading is good for kids, and there is a growing body of evidence to support the belief that immersing children in book-oriented environments benefits their later educational achievement, attainment, and occupational standing. Such findings have been interpreted as suggesting that book-oriented socialization, indicated by home library size, equips youth with life-long tastes, skills, and knowledge. However, until recently, these beliefs have not been directly assessed. Now there is hard data to support such claims.

Dr. Joanna Sikora of Australian National University and her colleagues have analyzed data from more than 160,000 adults, from 31 different countries, who took part in the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies between 2011 and 2015.

Respondents ranged in age from 25 to 65 and were asked to estimate how many books were in their house when they were 16 years old. Participants were told that one meter of shelving was equivalent to around 40 books and were able to select from a given range of books that included everything from “10 or less” to “more than 500.”

The participants also went through literacy, numeracy, and information communication technology (ICT) tests to gauge their abilities.

The results showed that the average number of books in participants’ childhood homes was 115, but that number varied widely from country to country. The average library size in Norway was 212 books, for instance; in Turkey, it was 27. Across the board, however, it seemed that more books in the home was linked to higher proficiency in the areas tested by the survey.

The researchers note that “adolescent exposure to books is an integral part of social practices that foster long-term cognitive competencies spanning literacy, numeracy and ICT skills. Growing up with home libraries boosts adult skills in these areas beyond the benefits accrued from parental education or own educational or occupational attainment.”

Teenagers in a home with almost no books went on to have below average literacy and numeracy levels, the researchers found. Having approximately 80 books in adolescent home libraries raised levels to the average, while once the library size reached 350 books, it was “not associated with significant literacy gains”. The same was true for ICT skills, but the gain was not as steep.

One interesting finding was that teenagers with only lower levels of secondary education, but who came from a home filled with books, “become as literate, numerate, and technologically apt in adulthood as university graduates who grew up with only a few books”. University graduates who grew up with hardly any books around them had roughly average literacy and numeracy levels, which were the same levels reached by those whose schooling ended in the equivalent of year nine (13-14 years old), but who grew up surrounded by books.

The authors’ conclusions: “… bookish adolescence makes for a good deal of educational advantage, …its impacts are equivalent to additional years of education.”

“As expected, respondents’ education, occupational status, and reading activities at home are strong predictors of superior literacy nearly everywhere, but respondents clearly benefit from adolescent exposure to books above and beyond these effects. Early exposure to books in [the] parental home matters because books are an integral part of routines and practices that enhance lifelong cognitive competencies.”

So thank you, Mary, for knowing this was the case 36 years before a bunch of academics came to the same conclusion.

And for anyone who may be interested, here is what the Borden family is reading now:

  • Dad – When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Dan Pink
  • Mom – White Chrysthanemum by Mary Lynn Bracht
  • oldest son – Hawaii by James Michener
  • middle son – Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman
  • youngest son – Deal Breaker by Harlan Coben

*photo is of one family’s home library

6 thoughts on “Books – the Great Equalizer

  1. Great post!

    Really interesting but not surprising to see that comparison between college grads who grew up without books & non grads who grew up with a lot of books.

    I’m just glad you didn’t ask me when I *started* the Hawaii book!


    1. Thanks; I guess it shows that if you’re disciplined enough you don’t really need to go to school. At some point, I might try to read Hawaii, but I might wait until I retire!


  2. We had a lot of books growing up. I remember Dad always reading. I know Peggy and I spent a lot of time at the library when we were kids. I can’t remember if you wen with us or not. It was one way out of doing housework when we told Mom we wanted to go to the library. That was one thing they always encouraged.


  3. Jim Borden: Books are the Great Equilizer
    Jensen Comment
    I might add that times have changed to where books at home may be less important than networking access and computing power. By the way, hundreds of millions of books are now free online —

    Paul Allen —

    The following appears in an October 17, 2017 Chronicle of Higher Education Newsletter
    It was the last straw at the University of Washington. Paul Allen and his buddies had been sneaking into the university’s computer-science lab. The high-school kids used all the terminals at once, and they borrowed a device without permission. So, in 1971, the lab’s director wrote him a letter.

    “Turn in your keys,” he wrote, and terminate your activities “immediately.”
    Allen has attributed that free time spent on the university’s computers to his subsequent creation, along with Bill Gates, of the dominant personal-computing company Microsoft. The innovator died of cancer Monday at age 65. Washington’s computer-science department last year was renamed the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering. And at a naming event last year, he expressed optimism for the field’s future.

    “I envy today’s young computer-science and engineering students, I really do,” he said then. “The amount of computing power available for their projects and the facility of the programming tools they can use far exceed anything we had.”


    1. There’s no doubt that access to technology and the Internet are critical for success today. I just wonder if there is something different about curling up with a good book or laying in bed reading to your kids that still makes books a key part of development. I’d be curious if having 300 physical books would count the same as having 300 books on a Kindle in terms of the impact on a child’s literacy, numeracy, and IT skills.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.