July 10, 2004

Reading and the Future

WE NOTE WITH CONCERN a report which recently appeared in The New York Times, which informs us that fewer Americans are reading books than in the past. A Government study found that only 56.6 percent of Americans bothered reading a book on their own in the past year, a decline from 60.9 percent ten years ago. It also found that only 46.7 percent bothered to read any literature, a drop of about eight points since the last survey.

It is an interesting survey for many reasons. For instance, the National Endowment for the Arts produced it. We are shocked to learn the agency spent money on writing this -- just think of all the graduate students whose sacriligeous, pornographic visual-art projects were left unrealized! Also, the survey reveals that young people were least likely to read books compared to their older peers, and the pool of American literature readers was 96 million. That last figure truly puts things in perspective. For if there are 96 million adult literature readers, there are 110 million American adults who do not read literature. We can extrapolate these figures and find there are approximately 89 million American adults who do not read at all.

Good God, that's almost frightening. How the hell can people not read books? What do these ninety million people do with their time? Do they watch television? If so, how?

We are hopeful that some of our readers can provide some insight into these questions, as we know that no one in our circle of family, friends or acquaintances falls among those ninety million. And the last time we watched television for fun -- that would be the Lakers-Pistons series -- we caught previews for some of the new shows and soon became nauseous.

One show featured a clip of a horse throwing off and trampling a noisome and obnoxious girl. Another show featured musicians moving into a quiet suburb and the zany hijinks which ensued; a third apparently served as a casino advertisement. God. People watch this stuff? Voluntarily?

Now, we will concede the situation may not be as dire as the statistics suggest. After all, one can function in daily life if one only reads, say, newspapers and magazines and blogs in the course of a year. There may be, and probably are, people who because of their work only find the time for that.

Still, we would think that people who read newspapers and magazines and blogs also read a lot of books too; the things just go hand-in-hand. At dinner last night, we read a magazine; this morning we are reading our favorite blogs; this afternoon we shall read a book. Tomorrow morning we shall read the Sunday paper.

The trouble comes when one considers the contrapositive: that people who do not read newspapers and magazines and blogs also do not bother reading any books. How many of those ninety million people fall into this category? And what, one wonders, will become of them?

The thing about reading is not merely that it is fun or enjoyable, although that's reason enough to pick up a few books. The thing is that one learns when one reads. It does not matter what one is reading or why; people who read improve their skill sets in doing so. That improvement may be small (if one reads a historical novel) or it may be large (if one reads a book on economics, personal finance, or similar subject). But the point is that there's improvement.

To succeed in American life, it is imperative that a person not only has a strong knowledge base, but also the ability to adapt as circumstance warrants. There are two sides to this same coin of knowledge.

The first is street-learning. After all, being the most-read person in the world will not save you, for instance, if you picked a bad partner for your overseas venture and he ends up robbing you blind. It will not save you if you make a horrible mistake in politics or operate on the wrong side of a patient's body or get caught down-limit on sugar futures.

But here's the thing. If you don't have the other side of that coin -- book-learning -- you'll never get to the point where you can really put your street-learning to practice. You just won't. And if you don't get to that point, you put your future and your family's future at risk -- perhaps for generations to come, until some far-off day when your great-grandchild breaks that vicious cycle.

Of course, we realize that Rant readers know these things already, which may lead readers to question why we even bothered writing this. After all, our warning is not aimed at them. They would be right in making this argument, except for one small thing, that being it is they we hope would pass on the message. For in the end, we realize the cruel truth: that those we would most want to read these words will never do so.

(link via Ambra Nykol)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at July 10, 2004 10:14 AM | TrackBack

Of course, we realize that Rant readers know these things already, which may lead readers to question why we even bothered writing this.

It's funny, I was thinking the same thing by the seventh paragraph - preaching to the choir.

Posted by: Chris Marcum at July 13, 2004 11:32 PM

Yep. When I wrote, I didn't expect any of the unchurched to suddenly stumble across this essay and lo! have an epiphany. But I did think it made the point that those of us who do read ought make an effort to reach out to those people who don't. After all, there's only so much bad television any human being can stomach.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at July 14, 2004 08:51 AM