Much of my life has consisted of reading just about everything I could get my hands on. As a kid I read all the time. I can remember burning through comic books by the dozens and then moving on to science fiction novels, mysteries and war stories.
Reading has always been important to me. I see it as a way of formulating thoughts, deep ones. Sure I can watch the History Channel or PBS and get a lot out of the programs, but they usually only just peak my interest. When I find something I am truly interested in on a program, I almost always turn to written materials to get to the depth of it.
Often in my work I have to look through government documents and discern for readers what they report. While interesting, seldom do I find anything that really shakes me up. However, that changed a couple of weeks ago when my wife handed me an article out of a magazine about the decrease in reading in the United States. This led me to the actual report cited in that periodical that was released by the National Endowment for the Arts on July 8. It basically says reading for enjoyment, that means literature of all kinds, is leaving the American way of life.
If that doesn't scare you it should, for many reasons.
Reading is one of the founding factors in thinking, particularly when teaching people to think critically. Books can influence us over the long term, because it takes a thought process to digest what we are seeing and it takes an imagination to see what is in the words. That is particularly true of literature.
Most of us at one time or another spent many hours in a classroom or doing homework reading what we considered dried up ancient author's thoughts. But as much as I hated to do that when I was 17, I can still remember what a lot of those old authors said and what they wrote about.
About the only thing I can remember about television and movies from when I was 17 was Laugh In and the movie The Graduate.
The report by the NEA, called Reading at risk: A survey of literary reading in America, found that every group they studied had a decline in reading, with the steepest downward rate in the youngest of age groups.
Imagine what young kids are missing by watching the Cat in the Hat with Mike Myers, instead of reading the book. They are so different from each other, yet they are called by the same name.
It would be like tasting a pear, and then being told that all fruit was the same as that pear. The subtleties, the differences in color and ideas would all be formed by a single vision, rather than by the imagination.
If one looks at the publishing industry, it appears readership must be up. There are more book titles than ever (over 164,000 new titles last year) and the report says that the number of people actually writing fiction is up dramatically from 22 years ago. Today 14 million people claim to be writing fiction, yet the number of people who have taken even one creative writing class is down 2.2 million. That means we have many people who don't know what they are doing writing stuff for those who would only want to see it if it was on the boob tube.
What our television, video game society has done it seems, is to create a group of people who write because they see ideas on the screen instead of real life. Not that that is all wrong, but real life is where true fiction emanates from.
What I fear the most, and you should to, is a citizenry that can't think for itself. To some extent we already have that. Listen to people who watch 24 hour television news all the time. They often have exceedingly strong opinions about politics, ethics and just about everything else, but their arguments, their logic is often shallow, because they only get a glimpse of what the real reasons behind events are. The news is the news, but often it has no depth, particularly on a television screen.
Literature is not news and certainly neither is fiction. But the ability to think deeply about things and events is formed at a very early age, and that kind of understanding begins with reading simple fiction which is enjoyable. Those who get all their information from television, whether it be news or entertainment, are trapped by parameters that reading breaks through.
One of the most interesting aspects of the report is the affect of reading on lifestyle. The report says that readers are much more likely to be involved in cultural, volunteer and sports activities than are non-readers. The old image of the book worm, tied by his interest in the written word to a chair in a bedroom is totally untrue. More likely the non-participating-athlete is the guy who sits in his den with his sports collectables surrounding him as he watches Sportscenter for hours on end.
One small light in this darkness is the internet. Much of what we take in there is read, although it is getting more and more like television everyday. However getting information on the web is often like getting a biased, distorted version of Cliff Notes on about any subject you want to look at. Some of the most important intellectual discoveries of my life came as I waded through periodicals or books at the library looking for some obscure facts, and then came across a book that I never knew existed on a subject that I knew nothing about, but later developed a keen interest in.
Reading takes effort and often it is so much easier just to grab the remote. But America needs to wake up to the fact that both adults and children need to read more, or we will definitely become a civilization in decline because we will lose our imaginations and ability to think for ourselves.