This month I’m corresponding with Jacob Mishook


I hope you had a great Labor Day weekend. When we originally decided on corresponding in September, you mentioned it would be timely given the start of the school year and that we’ve both worked in education policy. So in keeping with that theme, I’ll start with the biggest education policy story of the last year, the “science of reading,” popularized by the “Sold a Story” podcast. I’m not an early literacy expert so I can’t comment on the merits of the argument of the pendulum swing back towards phonics - though my layperson reaction was that it is compelling - but I do have a few observations:

  • In the twenty-plus years I’ve been in the education policy field, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a reaction to a single piece of research-influenced journalism larger than “Sold a Story” on early literacy policy. I’ve seen various numbers out there, but at the low-end at least 18 states have considered “science of reading” bills in the last year. In a field as frankly slow-moving as education policy, this is truly exceptional, and makes me wonder how it happened. A compelling and lay-friendly story, sure, but that can’t totally explain it (there’s a lot of good journalism out there). I could spin up a “just-so” story about parents seeing their kids struggle during the pandemic, but that seems incomplete as well. Any ideas here?
  • At the same time, the act of reading seems both larger and smaller in American culture now. Larger, of course, due to recent laws restricting what young people can read in their schools and libraries. But also smaller - the National Endowment for the Arts regularly puts out fascinating studies of Americans’ reading habits. The most recent one, from 2020 (using 2017 survey data) focused on the ways in which people read books (e.g., print, electronic, audio). And that’s certainly interesting (as an aside, I’m a dedicated print reader, and do not have the type of concentration needed to listen to audiobooks). But the broader reading trend seems disheartening:

Line chart showing the steady decline in readying for those under 64 and a small increase for those over 65.

I assume reading is falling victim to the crowded landscape of leisure activities, but maybe a real policy focus on reading over time will reverse the trend?

  • Which brings me to a (happier) last point - you and I are enthusiastic readers, though perusing our respective Goodreads activities, we don’t have a lot of overlap. At the risk of some overgeneralization, you appear to have a clear preference for speculative fiction, while I’m maybe more of a magpie but with a tilt towards (hate this but for lack of a better term) “literary” fiction. If my favorite pastime is reading, my second favorite might be reading book reviews, which leads me in a lot of different directions and also a huge pile of unread library books. How do you decide what to read? When and how do you find time to read? Are there books or genres you’d want to read more in depth if you had more time?


Hi Jacob,

I had a great Labor Day Weekend. Although it was too hot here to be outside (which has been my general feeling about Baltimore since about June 1), I took a little time off from work for a “staycation” of sorts. That meant doing a little bit of clean up/clean out at home and heading to Oppenheimer on Tuesday for a solid 3 hours in air conditioning when no one at work could reach me even if they tried on my day off.

It is remarkable how fast “Sold a Story” had an impact– especially since this was one of the least well-kept secrets in education policy… since I started this work in 2009/2010? I remember reading Daniel Willingham on learning styles and reading all the way back then and thinking it was wild how far practice had strayed from evidence. I think like many odd things in the world today, the answer is probably something like “It’s COVID, stupid,” just as you suspect. I’m not sure I would actually attach it to parents seeing their kids struggle. Instead, I think it probably has more to do with the broader breakdown in trust. Education has long been plagued by everyone loving their teachers, but thinking teachers in general are not great. Their school is great, but schools in general, not so much. I think pure enthusiasm from an adult that parents and families trusted and liked translated into belief in their expertise and capability. With so many districts failing to meet parent expectations, whether that meant opening or closing, I think that trust was just broken. We were ripe for a story that politicians of all ideologies could get behind that said, “Schools are doing something wrong that we all agree is wrong.” In so many ways, bad reading instruction was just super popular reading instruction. It was instruction teachers enjoyed, and we just reached the point where that was far from enough for families.

I’m not sure what to make of reading trends. On the one hand, looks bad! On the other hand, there’s this additional culture zeitgeist around things like “booktok” and the seeming staying power of independent booksellers. There’s also this whole world of self-publishing on Amazon and what that has meant or not. Books feel like they’re in a weird place, from a production and business model sense, and I wonder if we have to be careful about “books” versus “reading”. I really like long form, non-serialized storytelling. I like movies over most television most of the time. And I like books. I don’t think the novel is dead, but I wonder if what we’re seeing is a business that is struggling to pivot and deliver what its customers want in a world where culture is changing so fast.

I have a firm rule in my own reading– I try and stay away from most non-fiction. I can enjoy non-fiction, but there are a couple of hang ups I have. First, I find that almost every non-fiction book contains 90% of its value in 10% of its page count. I find myself constantly wishing that books were just longer form articles or monographs or sometimes even blog posts. The other reason is because I read non-fiction all day long every day. I read news magazine articles, blog posts, newspaper articles, and listen to many non-fiction podcasts. I’m awash in non-fiction in all my other media consumption. So there’s a balancing act there as well. I find books to be the wrong form for most non-fiction, and I find myself lacking in fiction every where else I consume new media.

Deciding what to read then is a bit more tough. I do heavily stick to science fiction and fantasy. I’m fan of the term “speculative fiction” because that’s where most of my interest lies. I find that it’s helpful to have unrealistic elements in a story as an animating mechanism. It’s not so much about having an exciting story– I read plenty of philosophical, non-exciting stuff– but instead, it’s that I find it easier to understand the message or ideas of a book when they’re a bit more plain. The point of most good speculative fiction is to manipulate the world and have characters that respond in realistic ways to a world with those rules. Playing with the rules makes the ideas more concrete and obvious to me. Reading literary fiction, which I do enjoy, I often find myself unsure of what an author is saying with their work. Literary fiction for me is all plot. I can’t penetrate the message. I don’t suffer that same deficiency with speculative fiction.

One thing that’s great in science fiction and fantasy is I can track some of the key awards– the Hugos, Nebulas, Locus, etc– and pick up the nominees I have not already read. I also then follow down the path of certain authors as well. I’m not that big into book reviews, but I imagine I could be. I just haven’t really found a spoiler free source that resonates with my own taste. Perhaps the closest thing is a nerdy pop-culture podcast called The Incomparable, which has book club episodes. Sometimes I just look at the “what are we reading?” notes at the end of episodes that have nothing to do with the book discussed and choose things at random.

If I had more time, I probably would read slightly more non-fiction, but quite judiciously. I would have to work harder to find the books that earn their page count. And I also wish I read more short story collections.

I didn’t answer everything, because we would be going on for quite some time, but I’m glad we’ve got September up and running and are discussing reading.

I’ll throw you something that haunts me that you can choose to respond to or not in your next letter– what can be done about school boards? The situation right now is, not good, to say the least.