Books in the Home

I just read Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner, a pop-science book of a sort about economics — which they nicely define in the phrase “Morality is the way people would like the world to work; economics represents how it actually does work.” The thesis of the book is that ‘rogue economist’ Levitt has an unconventional way of examining social issues in that he actually analyzes data (!) to arrive at conclusions that challenge ‘conventional wisdom’. His most controversial conclusion is that the declining crime rate in the US over the past decade isn’t due to advanced police techniques or stricter gun control laws, but is a result of the legalization of abortion in the ’70s, which resulted in an entire generation of unwanted children — those mostly likely to become criminals — to have not been born.

More pertinent to the world of books is the chapter on being a good parent, which looks at results of a late ’90s study of grade school children that used regression analysis to isolate the effects of many hundreds of varibles on school performance. (Actually it identified correlation, not causation.) Among possible factors were

  • The child has many books in his home
  • The child’s parents read to him nearly every day.

The perhaps surprising conclusion is that the first factor does correlate with high test scores, but the second doesn’t. The authors speculate this is because books in the home are indicators of intelligent, well-educated parents, who pass such traits to their children directly; books in the home are indicators, not causes. These are other results suggest, to generalize, that it matters more who the parents are, rather than what they do. (See pp172-174 of the book.)

My own parents were only moderately well-educated (neither finished college–because of military service, and marriage) but made the laudable gesture of furnishing our house with at least some books, mostly encyclopedia and Harvard Classics, though neither of them ever read for pleasure. And they never read to me. The world of books I pretty much discovered on my own. (Which reminds me, perhaps I’ll respond to that ‘book meme’ that’s been going around…)

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