Does Reading Matter?

Again I’ve no inclination to write here, so went back to 2007 for this piece. The comments are interesting. I lived in Bozeman when I wrote this, and Bon Garner took trouble to introduce me to Steve Kelly, and then went and died. Bob was quite a character, a nice man, and I have fond memories of our brief interlude before he died. I remember his house was full of books.

He told me of the time that he worked in Vargas, a local book store, and they had a customer tie up his dog outside and come in and browse. A cop saw the dog and came in to reprimand the man for neglecting the pooch, and Bob seized the opportunity. He dialed 911 to report an armed man was harassing a customer. Three squad cars arrived at once. Hilarity ensued. For Bob, anyway.
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There’s an interesting op-ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal called “Does Reading Matter?” I reprint it in full below, as the Journal online is subscription-based. The National Endowment for the Arts released a report on reading that said that the average 17-24 year old in this country spends seven minutes a day doing voluntary reading.

I’ve read these reports before, and for years have witnessed the hand-wringing on the subject. Some implications are clear – people get their information by watching TV and listening to radio, and lately, via their computers. These media are not filtered in the same way as the printed word, and people are much more susceptible to indoctrination via TV and radio than books, which are filtered at the source. Pictures go straight to the brain. Words are filtered, contrasted with ideas, accepted or rejected based on other knowledge and prejudices.

So the logical inference is that people who digest information via reading are better informed than those who do so via TV and radio.

How do we process information, and how many of us process it at all? Frankly, those who are not reading are being manipulated by various media. Can’t be helped. It appears as though very few people have the inclination to pick up a book at the end of a long work day. Most turn on the tube. And they don’t want to be hit with hard issues with complicated resolution. They want the easy stuff. They want to relax, and who can blame them.

It’s a free market, and the market gives them what they want: Damned little to think about. But it leaves our society as a whole subject to the worst sort of leadership – people who use images to control opinions. We leave ourselves open to that when we do not read, filter and process information.

Where does that leave those of us who do read and digest and think about things in any depth? We have some power. We’re in charge of ideas. We advocate for policy, but the mainstream is brought along by the most thoughtless media of all, TV. In the end, it’s not ideas that sell policy – it’s images. The Bush Administration (along with FOX News) is very careful to control images coming out of Iraq. They know that even though words accompany the images, it is only the images that matter. No flag-draped coffins, no dead civilians. That’s how they manage public opinion.

There’s more to it, of course. The primary means of manipulating public opinion is to filter it down via opinion leaders. That’s the same way they sell fashion – people see important people wearing different clothing, and change their own style. It’s the same in the arena of ideas – most people don’t think for themselves. They look up the food chain. TV is a great medium for handing down information. It’s how we elect our presidents.

Are we a literate society? Hell no, of course not. And we were not a literate society when Tom Paine hit the streets with Common Sense. Only a relative few read it, the opinion leaders, and those few made all the difference.

Back to the beginning – does reading matter? Yes, it matters a great deal. But there are now, as in 1776, only a few that can process information and think critically. The rest are along for the ride. Things have not changed much, then to now.

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Does Reading Matter?
November 29, 2007; Page A18
By: Daniel Henninger

Time-pressed Christmas shoppers who visit Amazon.com nowadays see a homepage pushing Kindle. Kindle is Amazon’s “revolutionary wireless reading device.” This ambitious ($400) and ultimately admirable gadget springs from the hopes of Amazon’s visionary founder, Jeff Bezos, whose e-company began with books but in time found that profitability required the selling of things that people prefer to do with their ever-dwindling free time.

It was hard not to notice that Kindle was born unto us about the same moment the National Endowment for the Arts released a report on reading’s sad lot in our time. Amid much other horrifying data, it revealed that the average 15- to 24-year-old spends seven minutes daily on “voluntary” reading. Cheerfully, this number rises to 10 minutes on weekends.

An earlier, equally grim NEA report, “Reading at Risk,” announced the collapse of interest in reading literature — basically books. This newer study widened the definition of “reading” to include magazines, newspapers and online leisure. No matter. Even if the definition of literate life includes persons who spend their seven voluntary minutes with “InStyle” magazine or online reviews of HDTVs, the report still suggests that unmandated reading is heading for the basement.

As someone whose professional hero up to now was Johannes Gutenberg, I’m obviously cheering for Mr. Bezos’s Kindle, whose pages appear in a book-like technology called E-Ink. It must be counted as good news that Amazon’s Web site says the first run of the Kindle machines is sold out. (A spokesman said they won’t disclose how many. Hmmm.) Still, one must ask:

Are Kindle’s early adopters the leading edge of a new literate future, or a small, fanatic band of bookish monks, like those in Walter M. Miller Jr.’s 1959 sci-fi classic, “A Canticle for Leibowitz” (not yet available on Kindle) who preserved books in a post-nuclear apocalypse? Are we in a post-digital apocalypse for serious reading?

And if so, does it matter?

The NEA authors posit “greater academic, professional and civic benefits” with high levels of leisure reading. In other words, readers profit, at least in their souls, from time spent with works of the imagination or with books that explain the past. I agree.

Herewith, however, an anecdote that may suggest one reason for the decline. At a Wall Street Journal focus-group session awhile ago, the facilitator asked young professionals, readers of the Journal, about their reading habits. I was struck by the comment of a 30-something woman. “Look,” she said, “I spend my entire day at work on a computer. When I go home at night, I just want to read something.”

She, no doubt, would be one of Leibowitz’s monks. The fact is that many people who used to read a lot today have jobs that require staring at a screen. Smart people work long hours, mostly onscreen, ingesting things like legal documents, commercial leases, prospectuses for initial public offerings, Yahoo headlines and whatever computer engineers read. Then they crawl home at night to play video games or watch season three of “24” from Netflix.

Rolling your eyeballs across endless snowdrifts of pixels 10 hours a day, even for good money, is tiring. Thus post-pixel reading defaults to absorbing the synopsis on the back of a DVD box. If you can read Angelina Jolie’s name, what else do you need to know?

One criticism of the NEA studies is that they don’t capture the “new” ways people read away from work. This means the Endowment doesn’t validate new pastimes, such as reading text messages on cell-phone screens. Add the input-output of text messaging to the data base of readers and the daily voluntary reading time likely rises from seven minutes to six or seven hours.

Is this literacy? In 50 years, no one may ask.

This is an inventive age, though, so it was inevitable that smart people would devise a response to the flight from literature. French professor Pierre Bayard has written (a book) called “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.” He suggests we skim, rather than read, the classics. A less-suspect fix is the Web site DailyLit.com. It’s a site for people beset with guilt because they don’t “read” anymore.

Select one of their classics, or poetry, and they’ll push five minutes of it to your email box each day at the same hour. I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Beautiful and Damned” this way. The story was fantastically depressing, but the expiation helped.

One wonders if reading’s status isn’t more complex. Unlike 30 years ago, when most of one’s acquaintances could at least talk about Cheever, Malamud, Updike, Plath, Baldwin, Mailer et al., there is no longer a common conversation about literature. Today, it’s come down to one book: Harry Potter. Maybe two, “The Kite Runner.” And yes, a million people will read David McCullough’s grand “1776” and talk about it. But other than Oprah, the institutional agenda setters and critics that created the common conversation are gone.

Anecdotally, though, there seems to be an amazing amount of real reading going on.

A recent phenomenon on the streets of New York is people walking, amid crowds, their nose in a book. One sees it all the time. The subways are full of people reading books. On just one subway car this Tuesday one saw: “Tales from Da Hood” by Nikki Turner, “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Don’t Know Much About History” by Kenneth Davis. Small book clubs abound, as do book Web sites. There are small presses dedicated to writers “no one” is aware of beyond several thousand loyal acolytes. But they are reading.

It isn’t just books. There’s no common conversation about popular music either; music’s subcategories now are endless and arcane. Other than movies, still seen together in theaters, cultural interests once widely shared have subdivided into many discrete communities.

But the NEA’s broader policy issue still holds: Will people who simply stop “reading” be at a disadvantage? Yes. In the future, I suspect that the adept “readers” will be telling the non-readers what to do. A canticle, perhaps, for the next Leibowitz.
• Write to henninger@wsj.com.

About Mark Tokarski

Just a man who likes to read, argue, and occasionally be surprised.
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8 Responses to Does Reading Matter?

  1. Thought you might be interested in our post on this topic from the other day:

    Read This! Instilling a Love of Reading in Kids

    Hope you’ll stop by to check it out.

    Best,

    Jessica Bennett
    Blog Editor, Beacon Broadside

    Like

  2. Assume for a second that your statement about 1776 then an now is true. Only a small percentage of the population can do critical thinking. At the time of the revolution there were around 2 million people in the US. If 1% were critical thinkers that’s 20,000 people. Today there are 300 million people. 1% is 3 million people. That’s greater than the entire popluation in 1776.

    It just like the state that only 20% of the Chinesse populations is highly educated (college degree minimum). That’s 260 million people. That’s almost as much as our entire population.

    In addition in 1776 the average life span was around 35 and more than 90% lived in poverty…and that was real poverty. Today lifespan as more than doubled and only 10% live in poverty with a lifestyle that includes owning a home, a car and a lot more stuff.

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  3. Thank you Jessica – I did stop by. You give it a completely different treatment. I urge anyone else who reads this to stop by your blog.

    Like

  4. Bob Garner says:

    I have a real concern that increasing reliance on electronic technology retards development of critical intelligence in people. As more and more people rely more and more on electronics to gather and store information, remember and plan things for them, innate cognitive and other natively human skills get set on low idle and people stop growing as emotively intelligent beings.

    People speak of “computer literacy” as though it equates to literate reading and writing. Reading and writing are much more nuanced intellectually, psychologically and emotionally than the kind of internet slang and text message shorthand that is so popular these days. IMHO, AAMOF, CMIIW, etc. are like atrophied muscles as far as intelligent and self-expressive growth and social functioning is concerned.

    It seems to me that communication skills of all kinds are being auctioned off for electronic toys that act like drugs on an intelligent mind. I must say, though, having said all the above, that I encounter an awful lot of people in bookstores buying books, presumably to read. Or are they buying coffee table paper weights in the shape of books for cosmetic show and tell?

    It used to be that a writer would write and a publisher would publish, and a reader would read, but now book store chains allied with conglomerate publishers conduct market research and focus group surveys to determine what kinds of books people are willing to buy. Publishers then hire writers to produce these consumerist books. I don’t place much faith in statistics, but it seems that people are being dumbed down at their own request.

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  5. Agreed in every detail, Bob. Nicely said … BTW, what do AAMOF and CMIIW stand for?

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  6. Bob Garner says:

    According to Wikipedia (List of Internet slang phrases) AAMOF substitutes for “As a matter of fact.” CMIIW is listed as meaning “Correct me if I’m wrong.” The list is eight pages long, by the way.

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  7. pjfinn says:

    Eight pages? YGTBK!

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  8. More and more publishers are being pushed out. Just look what audible has done. This is the first time in history where anyone and everyone can get a book published. There are now more than 100,000 books published in the English language every year. We are entering a new golden age. There are now millions of people that can write first class material. If 1/2 of 1% of the worlds popluation can write meaningful books thats 30 million people. That’s more than were alive in Europe in Shakespere’s time.

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