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Issue Date:  January 25, 2008

A world without books

The obsolescence of reading is a looming peril


In a recent New Yorker cartoon a young man sits alone at his coffee shop table and types into his laptop, “It was the best of Starbucks. It was the worst of Starbucks.”

How many readers got the joke? Literary allusions work when the writer and audience can presume that everyone has read the “best of times” first line of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities in high school.

But in the last few months The New Yorker, The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek and National Public Radio, among others, have called our attention to two related crises: According to two studies by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2004 and 2007, Americans are reading less and less. At the same time newspapers -- including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Morning News, the Orlando Sentinel and the Chicago Tribune -- have drastically reduced their coverage of books.

According to the [National Endowment for the Artsí] 2004 report, “Reading at Risk,” a survey of 17,000 adults showed that for the first time in history the majority of Americans showed no interest in literature; 53 percent in the past year had not read a novel, play or poem. Also, the non-readers were less involved in civic life. The follow-up survey in 2007, “To Read or Not to Read,” includes nonfiction, magazines, newspapers, online reading, and the news is worse. “On average, Americans ages 15 to 24 spend almost two hours a day watching TV, and only seven minutes of their daily leisure time reading.” The reading decline correlates with a decline in writing, reading scores, school grades, completing school, workplace performance, volunteer work, attending sports and cultural events, voting and exercise.

Students are not reading less because they’re doing homework. Rather, the less they study, the less they read. Sixty-two percent of students say they read 15 or fewer pages for homework a night. Although the norm for college students should be 30 hours, only a third study more than 16 hours a week.

Should we blame TV? Yes and no. Among the average Americans who watch two hours of TV a day, some read, but for those who watch beyond two hours, reading suffers more, especially when 58 percent of middle and high school students use other media -- TV, music, video games, instant messaging, e-mailing and surfing Web sites -- while they read.

Nor is there comfort in the notion that young people will “read” on the Internet. As Dana Gioia, chairman of the [National Endowment for the Arts], told me in a 2006 interview for Conversations magazine, online readers “do not read in a sustained linear way. They jump around a lot. So the Internet is a very powerful information tool. It is not a very powerful reading tool.” The New Yorker reports on two studies showing that we remember more of what we read silently than what we see on Power Point or on TV. Nor will gizmos like the iBook or the Kindle save “reading,” says The New Republic: “It takes more than the apparition of words to constitute a book and its inner forms. Bleak House is not e-mail ... and Atonement does not deliver information.” Let us be grateful for gadgets, “but let us also recognize that we toy with the obsolescence of the book at our mental peril.”

In my bad dreams, I see a funeral cortege, a hearse drawn by black horses towing the works of Dickens, Dostoevsky, Joyce and others to the city dump.

How can we turn those horses back? As Barack Obama says, “Parents have to turn off those TVs and put away those video games.” Grade schools and high schools should schedule a silent reading hour every day. As historian David McCullough emphasized in a recent interview, we must realize the seriousness of this threat to our nation’s understanding of itself. When we don’t read, we cut ourselves off from our past: “We are what we read more than we know.”

Teachers who themselves are not well-read will not assign much reading. A college that allows students to take humanities courses pass/fail will not produce challenging teachers. In my college sophomore-junior fiction classes at St. Peter’s College in New Jersey, I meet students who have never read a book in their lives, including in their first year of college.

For several years now, with the encouragement of the National Education Association, colleges have sponsored freshman year “values” reading programs, where all read the same book -- Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying or Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking -- and the author comes to speak. But for these programs to work, teachers must thoroughly teach the book, not just march the students in for the guest lecture.

Colleges should set minimum standards per course (for example, 2,000 pages per semester). Teachers who assign more books, not merely push the class through a standard text, will do more work and should be paid more. Try $100,000 a year for those whose students read the most. Every four years a teacher should have a reduced course load to participate in a faculty seminar to read, for example, the new translation of War and Peace or eight books on Iraq.

Finally, as Steve Wasserman, former Los Angeles Times book editor, writes in the Columbia Journalism Review, newspapers must accept their responsibility as educators and not cut book pages just because they don’t generate profit. By undermining book reviewing, they undermine themselves. Readers know that “without books ... the good society vanishes and barbarism triumphs.”

Editors and publishers who accept this challenge will be able to say: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.”

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth’s new book, The American Jesuits: A History, has just been published by New York University Press.

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2008

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