“What do the Amish think about your books?” That question gets tossed at me whenever I’m at a book event, and the answer isn’t all that surprising. As a whole, they love the nonfiction, some enjoy the fiction, and others roll their eyes at the idea of anyone writing fiction about them. “We’re not all that interesting,” an Amish friend told me.
She may not think so, but millions of Americans disagree. The subgenre of Amish fiction is one of the fastest growing niches in the inspirational fiction market. In a recent article, Salon writes that there are currently over 39 writers of Amish fiction.
We like to read about the Amish, but what do they like to read? In fact, do they even read very much?
You might assume that because formal schooling ends at eighth grade for the Amish, an education stops, too. Not so! These people read and read and read. I have never been in an Amish home that didn’t have floor to ceiling bookshelves, filled with books.
If painting with a broad brush, I’d say that most Amish prefer to read real-life inspirational stories or anecdotes, often with a Christian backdrop. Many of the authors and titles on those shelves are the same ones that might be on yours: Max Lucado, Charles Swindoll, Catherine Marshall, Daily Bread, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
An Amish publishing house, Pathway, publishes three simple, typeset magazines that are quite popular: Family Life, Blackboard Bulletin (for teachers), Young Companion. There are a fair number of other publications and books from Plain publishers: Herald Press, Ridgeway Publishers. Carlisle Printers does brisk business with self-published Plain authors. I’ve had some fascinating conversations with history buffs, including one Amish man who wondered if I had any to recommend about the Wild West. “Cowboys and Indians,” he said with a toothy grin. “That’s what I like.”
To mainstream Americans who place a premium on higher education, an Amish education might raise an eyebrow. To our way of thinking, it might seem limited and restrictive. Unmarried young Amish women—without college training—teach in small, parochial schools. Amish schools use a limited amount of material in the classroom—they have created their own readers, workbooks, and texts. They stress accuracy rather than speed, drill rather than variety, proper sequence rather than critical thinking skills.
Yet illiteracy is virtually nonexistent in Amish settlements. Without television and computers, they read more than most Americans. They have a remarkable ability to learn new skills—even complicated ones—and value lifelong learning. Amish parents are heavily involved in their children’s education: they donate the land and building supplies for the school, visit regularly, attend school events, and take turns caring for the facilities.
In the book Amish Society, John Hostetler wrote, “On several standardized tests, Amish children performed significantly higher in spelling, word usage, and arithmetic than a sample of pupils in rural public schools. They scored slightly above the national norm in these subjects in spite of small libraries, limited equipment, the absence of radio and television, and teachers who lacked college training.”
And here’s a note to end on that will inspire you to turn off the TV and read to your kids: Amish children in the eighth grade gave a more positive rating to their families than did non-Amish children.
Suzanne Woods Fisher is an author of fiction and nonfiction books about the Old Order Amish for Revell. Learn more about Fisher with her free app, Amish Wisdom, or at www.suzannewoodsfisher.com.