As educators know, the Common Core standards emphasize the reading of informational text and downgrade the reading of fiction and poetry. The CC standards actually set percentages for how much time should be devoted to informational text vs. literature. In the elementary grades, the CC advises, instruction should be divided 50%-50% between literary sources and informational text. In grade 8, the CCSS recommended division is 45%/55%, diminishing literature. In grade 12, it should be 30%-70%, a huge reduction in reading literature. These percentages are based on the federal NAEP test guidelines for test developers; they were not intended to be guidance for teachers. In fact, as Tom Loveless showed, the Common Core affected teaching and curriculum by downgrading literature. In 2021, Loveless published a book about the failure of the CC.

In the past few weeks, I have seen some strong refutations of this downgrading of literature. Literature sharpens the mind and memory, teaching readers to be attentive to experiences, feelings, insights.

In July, the New York Times published an article about how to prevent cognitive decline. It was a summary of a book by a noted neurologist. It offered several key findings based on brain research. One was: read more novels.

Hope Reese wrote:

As we age, our memory declines. This is an ingrained assumption for many of us; however, according to neuroscientist Dr. Richard Restak, a neurologist and clinical professor at George Washington Hospital University School of Medicine and Health, decline is not inevitable.

The author of more than 20 books on the mind, Dr. Restak has decades’ worth of experience in guiding patients with memory problems. “The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind,” Dr. Restak’s latest book, includes tools such as mental exercises, sleep habits and diet that can help boost memory…

One early indicator of memory issues, according to Dr. Restak, is giving up on fiction. “People, when they begin to have memory difficulties, tend to switch to reading nonfiction,” he said.

Over his decades of treating patients, Dr. Restak has noticed that fiction requires active engagement with the text, starting at the beginning and working through to the end. “You have to remember what the character did on Page 3 by the time you get to Page 11,” he said.

A few days ago, an article by Washington Post technology columnist Molly Roberts opined that the failure to read novels was a serious error by Sam Bankman-Fried, whose crypto-currency businesses collapsed in November, evaporating billions of dollars in real currency.

The problem with SBF, she wrote, was that he doesn’t read books. He only reads quick, informational summaries.

She wrote:

Amid all the bombshell revelations about fallen crypto king Sam Bankman-Fried, a seemingly trivial bit of information might tell us everything we need to know: He doesn’t read books.

If you’re anticipating a caveat or qualifier, you’re as out of luck as the FTX investors whose money SBF allegedly lost. “I’m addicted to reading,” a journalist said to the erstwhile multibillionaire in a recently resurfaced interview. “Oh, yeah?” SBF replied. “I would never read a book.”

Now, there are plenty of people who don’t read. This does not indicate that they are likely to end up accused of having robbed thousands of others of their fortunes in a speculative adventure that is part financial experiment, part Ponzi scheme. Some prefer to listen; some prefer to do something else altogether. The thing is, the reason counts.

Behold, then, SBF’s reason: “I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that. … If you wrote a book, you f—ed up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post.”

Now, this is paragraph five of this column, so we’re running short on worthwhile words. But this means-to-an-end worldview might be the key to understanding SBF’s character, and his career. The point for SBF, it seems, isn’t the book itself but what he takes away from it — the instrumental knowledge that, presumably, he can gather more efficiently from a SparkNotes version of any opus than from the work itself.

Part of the problem might be an unspoken focus on nonfiction versus fiction, and maybe highly technical nonfiction in particular. After all, it’s easier to argue that you can learn everything you really need to know about the history of securities regulation from a cleverly constructed issue brief than it is to insist that if someone tells you Elizabeth Bennet ends up marrying Mr. Darcy, you’ve absorbed the sum total of “Pride and Prejudice.”

But no matter the type of book he’s talking about, what SBF is missing is the experience. You’re supposed to read not in spite of the digressions and diversions that stand between you and the denouement, but because of them; the little things aren’t extraneous but essential. And what you come out of a book with isn’t always supposed to be instrumental at all, at least not in any practical sense. You read to read; you don’t read to have read.

Editor’s note: the words in the Times article in bold print were emphasized by me. In the Washington Post article, the bold words appear in the original.