As students return to school, I’m reminded of the cheerful Ivy League senior who casually confessed to me earlier this year that she didn’t like to read. A student guide, she was leading my family on a campus tour.
I admired her candor and wasn’t shocked to hear she thought books were a bore. A 2015 survey by Scholastic and YouGov showed a sharp decline in the share of young people who read for pleasure—a trend I’d noticed as an adjunct writing professor when I polled my students. Though curious and ambitious, many freshmen in my classes hadn’t read a book for fun since middle school. When I wrote about it in a 2013 Journal op-ed, I heard many similar stories from readers.
Even so, as I followed our guide around the immaculate campus, I was saddened that one of its degree candidates would soon be entering the world with no love for literature. The tuition, we learned, is nearly $70,000 a year. It’s tragic that such an expensive, elite education could yield a graduate unmoved by the magic of the written word.
To encourage personal reading, universities should start by making books more visible on campus. On my family’s tours of five schools, I was struck by how few books I saw, even in the libraries. Instead of pointing to grand shelves thick with volumes, library guides invariably ushered us into media hubs with computer terminals. These newly reimagined spaces look as inviting as call centers. The sterile setting suggests reading is a rote exercise, devoid of emotion or imagination.
Of course university libraries must adapt to technology. It is also true that digital texts can yield diversion and wisdom. But in a campus culture that venerates vintage buildings and old-time traditions, universities should continue to celebrate their libraries’ printed collections, many of which contain treasures inaccessible online, as part of a past that can inform and enliven the present.
Hard-copy books can offer an enriching escape precisely because they’re not digital. If more young people would give them a chance, they might find traditional books particularly appealing—a nice tactile experience to complement their computer screens.
But campus bookstores, as I was reminded during our family’s travels, have pretty much gotten out of the book business. One typical two-story bookstore featured only two small shelves of trade titles tucked into a rear corner. The rest of the store was filled with T-shirts, toys and souvenirs.
The few volumes for sale included the essays of Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century Frenchman who declared: “From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honorable pastime.”
As another school year begins, that pastime seems far from the top of most college students’ minds. If he were seeking pleasure in a campus bookstore these days, Montaigne would probably have to settle for a coffee mug.
— Mr. Heitman, editorial page editor and a columnist for the Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”