Photo by Zuzana Ľudviková

From fantasy to biography

Rekindling the love of reading

Photo by Zuzana Ľudviková
Required reading in high school and uni turns a lot of young people off books. Anne, Isa, Leonie, and Cynthia rediscovered why they love reading so much, however. ‘Everytime I want to grab my phone, I just grab my book instead.’
18 June om 13:30 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 19 June 2024
om 10:03 uur.
June 18 at 13:30 PM.
Last modified on June 19, 2024
at 10:03 AM.
Avatar photo

Door Mai Tenhunen

18 June om 13:30 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 19 June 2024
om 10:03 uur.
Avatar photo

By Mai Tenhunen

June 18 at 13:30 PM.
Last modified on June 19, 2024
at 10:03 AM.
Avatar photo

Mai Tenhunen

Once upon a time, medical student Anne Schoonewille was a fanatical reader. She finished practically all the books in the classroom. As a preteen, she would go to the library, always borrowing the maximum of ten books. But then she lost interest. ‘At sixteen, I kind of stopped reading.’ 

For Isa Hamelink, too, reading used to be a part of daily life. That changed when she went to university to study modern history and international relations. ‘There was so much reading to do that at the end of the day, I really didn’t want to pick up another book.’

When kids read, they read a lot. While young people between thirteen and nineteen years old only read fourteen minutes per day on average, those who like reading, according to the Dutch reading foundation Stichting Lezen, do it for about the same amount of time as people over sixty-five: one hour and forty-five minutes.

But somewhere between the start of high school and university, these children often stop reading for pleasure. ‘I had to read so much for university that reading for fun did not seem quite as fun anymore’, says arts student Leonie.

Mandatory list 

Associate professor of European culture and literature Konstantin Mierau recognises the phenomenon. The decline starts even earlier, he thinks, for example when kids are made to read from a mandatory list of heavy classics. ‘We have been really good at demotivating people to read. The first move should be to include kids in deciding what is being read’, he says. ‘Or just let them read what they want!’

If a school tells you to read a book, that is demotivating

High school is certainly where things took a turn for Anne. ‘Most of the books are not fun at all to read for fifteen-year -lds’, she says. Leonie agrees: ‘Everyone fell out of love with reading in high school.’ 

For Cynthia van Tongeren, a double master student in arts & culture and literary studies and the secretary at literary student association Flanor, it was a big factor that reading was seen as uncool. ‘Most people my age hated reading’, she says. But then she found a friend who also liked to read and who she could discuss books with. ‘Together, we got to reading again.’

That’s exactly how it works, according to Mierau. ‘Adolescents and young adults are really motivated by social energy. If a school tells you to read a book, that is demotivating. If a friend says they’ve read a book, that motivates more. We need social energy, social structure to develop the habit of reading.’


Not least because reading brings many benefits. It allows you to unwind and disconnect from your studies, Leonie feels. ‘If you are stressed, you just pick up a nice book and disappear into that world.’

‘You go somewhere else, into another world and stay there for an evening’, agrees Anne, who especially loves fantasy books, like The City of Brass. ‘It’s a nice way to escape normal life.’

It can calm you down too. ‘I feel less of a need to always be doing something. With a book you force yourself to slow down. I am less scared to be alone with my brain’, Isa says. 

You go into another world and stay there for an evening

It’s also beneficial for your attention span. ‘Reading is something you have to do actively’, Leonie says. ‘In a way you are training your brain, while watching Netflix is more passive.’

Isa often reads historical biographies. Currently, she’s engrossed in Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Hearts, by Nadine Akkerman. ‘A book like that inspires me in my research, and can give new insight into courses I’m following’, she says. 

‘It helps me with university’, Cynthia echoes. ‘I’m better able to construct texts, and it’s easier to read academic papers. Books are also great for learning languages.’

Different perspectives

But perhaps most important is the fact that reading allows you to understand different perspectives. ‘You learn how other people might feel’, Leonie says. ‘Seeing the world through other people’s eyes, for example minorities, makes you more empathetic.’

Mierau confirms that reading can indeed change the way you look at the world. ‘When you as a reader have to make active judgment calls, it helps you to have a more growth-based view of others and yourself.’

Still, for all the benefits, it can be hard to get back in the habit of reading, especially with so many temptations around like Netflix, TikTok, or games. 

Mierau thinks that a good place to start is just noting what kinds of movies and series you watch. ‘You need to identify the starting point and your horizon of interest. Are you interested in interpersonal drama, shows about where you are from, maybe myths? There are a lot of books about that.’

Also: don’t take reading too seriously. Read what you like and do not feel forced to chow down the eight-hundred-page classics. ‘Literature with a capital L is ridiculous. Just read whatever you want’, Cynthia says. ‘Even fanfiction.’


Anne got back into reading through lockdown, boredom, and a 3 euro deal on a young adult series. ‘I just ordered them and read them in a few days in lockdown. I was like: OMG, yes! I just needed to be reminded of how much I loved to read.’

We need to expand our idea of what we think reading can include

Isa, too, has the pandemic to thank for rediscovering her love of books. ‘I started thinking about the time I was spending on my phone and felt like reading would be better and would relax me more’, she says. ‘So I started to pick up some easy books to start with and now, every time I want to grab my phone, I just grab my book instead.’

YouTubers like The Book Leo or Jack Edwards or fellow readers on TikTok (via #booktok) or Instagram can give you recommendations.  

Joining a book club can help you socialise. There are at least twenty book clubs at Flanor, Cynthia says. ‘For all different genres – one book club is just for watching Disney movies.’ She herself is a member of the fantasy club, French literature, children’s books, and the Disney group. 


She also joined a readathon online, where you have prompts and if you complete the challenge you can win something. ‘That really got me back into reading, because I am kind of competitive’, she says. And she has an app called Storygraph, where you can connect with others who are reading the same book. ‘You can basically annotate the book together, and see each other’s notes and comments.’ 

Mierau thinks it is important to not romanticise the idea of the printed book. ‘We need to expand our idea of what we think reading can include. We should not be too attached to this passing historical moment of the printed book.’ 

What matters is sharing knowledge and stories, and that can be done in lots of ways. ‘We want university students to read more. They read a lot, of course. They scroll Instagram and TikTok, but is that the kind of reading we want? Is an audiobook, a podcast or a TedTalk a good alternative? I would say yes.’