When Abraham Maslow sat down to calculate his 1943 motivational model entitled “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” literacy rates in America were nothing to brag about. Maslow’s hierarchy included “deficiency needs,” such as survival, safety, and belonging, as well as “growth needs,” such as ego and self-actualization. Maslow believed that one must achieve the lower-level needs before moving on to the higher levels. Maslow crafted his Hierarchy of Needs to better understand what motivates us. Though his model is still widely referenced today, the ability to correctly measure an individual’s progression within the model has gained a considerable amount of criticism. After all, the term “starving artist” completely undermines Maslow’s belief that survival needs must be met before an individual can experiment with creativity. Maslow had the right idea, but a case can be made to add another level within his hierarchy, falling somewhere between survival and belonging: Reading.
In 1943, when Maslow published his findings, a large percentage of middle- to lower-class Americans during this period did not, or, more notably, could not, read at all. Later that year, however, things began to change. As millions of soldiers made their way across the Atlantic during the Second World War, their barracks weren’t exactly stocked with tools and toys to appease their impending boredom. To entertain these soldiers, a civilian organization known as The Council on Books in Wartime decided to employ literacy as a means for recreation. This concept was foreign to the average American soldier. Soon, the barracks would be stocked with the works of Betty Smith and John Steinbeck. Hundreds of thousands of pocket-sized books were shipped overseas and placed in the hands of soldiers, marking the start of a new growth in literacy amongst the American population.
From this point forward, literacy rates in the United States have continued to improve, driven primarily by technological advancements. Eventually, bookshelves and board games were replaced with televisions and gaming consoles. We were left with a population of Americans who can read but rarely do, aside from text messages or Facebook posts. The benefits of reading are not lost on us, yet we continue to turn away from books and towards our screens. According to a 1999 report by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “basic literacy is essential for a well-functioning democracy and enhances citizenship and community.”
Sure, the need to read could be safely and accurately tucked within the category of “belonging” in Maslow’s Hierarchy, but the need for literacy in the modern world is so great that perhaps it should be given its very own title. More than fifty percent of American adults read below a sixth-grade level, begging the question, what are they missing? There is simply no denying the importance of literacy in the modern world.
Studies have repeatedly demonstrated the social and cognitive benefits that accompany regular reading. Reading improves cognition, quite literally strengthening your brain and sharpening your focus. Most social media apps have been meticulously designed to do the exact opposite of this, keeping your attention for only a matter of seconds before switching gears.
Socially, reading books makes us more empathetic. Reading about experiences and hardships that one individual may never personally endure allows them to become more empathetic and understand those who will. Empathy, compassion, togetherness; these things are what it means to belong, to be a part of a community, big or small. Literature unites us; it makes us question the things that are commonly understood and understand the things we question. It makes us smarter, more creative, less tense, more tolerant, less insular.
The need to read should not be driven by our children’s test scores or school funding. Instead, the need to read should be driven by our own intrinsic motivation, as Maslow defined it, to belong, to understand, and to be understood.