Summer Reading List

by Jay Maddock, PhD

The Dean’s Perspective focuses on issues pertinent to the relationship between academic public health and the practice community.

Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB

As summer comes to a close and schools open up again, many students have read a list of assigned books over the summer. While summer reading lists seem like a staple of education, a recent study found that only 16% of high school seniors read a book, newspaper, or magazine daily that wasn’t assigned for school compared to 60% in 1980. Related to that, SAT reading scores in 2016 were the lowest they have been since 1972. For those of us who teach college courses, this has a great effect on the ability of our students to read and comprehend the assigned pages. As adults and public health professionals, how much should we be reading?

A study by the Pew Research Center found that 24% of American adults didn’t read any books in the past year to include parts of books or audio books. While the average American reads 12 books a year, the median is only 4. This is certainly a skewed sample. Daily newspaper circulation has dropped from almost 63 million in 1987 to under 31 million in 2017. Two-thirds of Americans get at least some of their news from social media with 45% getting it from Facebook. How could that possibly go wrong?

Why should we read? In Maryanne Wolf’s book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, she explores the biological changes that occur in the brain when reading. Benefits of reading include increased verbal ability, focus and concentration, imagination, and just plain entertainment. If reading is so good for us, why don’t we do it?

Like many things that are good for us, the pace of modern life tends to crowd them out. With more avenues to distract our attention, the time for reading seems to get smaller and smaller. A few months ago, I wrote in this column about developing a writing habit. In many aspects, we need to do the same things to develop a reading habit. My New Year’s resolution in 2017 was to read 18 books in the year. I was successful in this endeavor and renewed my resolution this year.  As of today, I have completed 12 of my 18 books for 2018. I read a mix of both fiction and non-fiction books both related to public health and outside of the field. Reading can be purposeful and spontaneous. I have a set time and place for my personal reading but also always keep reading material in my work bag wherever I go. I also read work-related material in the office on a set schedule. My best writing time is in the morning when I am fresh and full of energy. In contrast, my best reading time is the end of the day when I am less hurried and have time for reflection. Surprisingly, reading in the workplace is often looked down upon as not real work. I was reading a book on appreciative inquiry the other day to prepare for a strategic planning session that I would be leading for Texas A&M, and a colleague came into my office and couldn’t believe that I had time to read with all the work that needed to be done. This is a dangerous attitude. Through reading, I was able to teach myself a new skill that I brought to the worksite and improved the planning efforts of our school. If we don’t read, how do we learn new things?

If you are not currently a reader in your home and work life, start slow. Try to set aside 15-20 minutes both at home and at work to read. Goal setting is also important. Try to target an amount of reading to achieve. In addition to my books, I also read the daily newspaper and every issue of the New Yorker. One of the articles in the New Yorker by Atul Gawande from 2009 was about the high cost of health care in this little town on the US-Mexico border called McAllen. Little did I know when I started assigning that article in my Current Topics in Community Health class at the University of Hawaii that six years later I would be dean of a school of public health with a campus in McAllen, Texas. You never know how what you read is going to influence you, but one thing is for sure, the more you read the more opportunity you have to be changed by it.

Jay E. Maddock, PhD is the Dean of the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University. He is internationally recognized for his research in social ecological approaches to increasing physical activity. He has served as principal investigator on over $18 million in extramural funding and authored over 100 scientific articles. [Full Bio]

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