Reading is embattled in the U.S., NEA report says

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 20, 2004

Commentary by Bill Brown

I read a thought provoking report the other day.

There is some irony in the fact that the report was about the decline in reading. Perhaps there is a little additional irony in the fact that I read it on a computer screen.

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The report, entitled Reading At Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, was issued in June by the National Endowment for the Arts.

National Endowment chairman Dana Gioia summed up the finding: “For the first time in modern history, less than half of the adult population now reads literature, and these trends reflect a larger decline in other sorts of reading.”

Literature doesn’t just mean high brow stuff. For the study, literature was defined as novels, short stories, plays or poetry. A romance novel carried as much weight as War and Peace. Reading for school or work was not counted.

It’s not just the reading of literature that is dropping. The study found that the percentage of adults reading any books had declined by 7 percent in the past decade.

Young adults – ages 18 – 34 – who used to be those most likely to read literature are now the least likely (with the exception of those ages 65 and above).

The report included a statistic that indicates things aren’t likely to get

better: A 1999 study showed that the average American child lives in a household with 2.9 television sets, 1.8 VCRs, 3.1 radios, 2.1 CD players, 1.4 video game players and 1 computer.

There was another troubling figure as well. A 1995 report from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that 45 percent of adults had reading skills that were so low that they could not read and understand many types of literature.

Should we care about reading? After all, there is a proliferation of electronic devices to entertain and inform us.

There is a case to be made that we should. I suspect that most of us who have received not only pleasure, but also knowledge and understanding from the printed word, think that reading remains the most important means of transmitting our experiences and our values from one generation to the next.

Literature often is a powerful witness for truth. That is why despots fear writers.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn painted a picture of Stalin’s labor camps far more powerfully than any dry recitation of statistics.

William Shakespeare’s plays offer striking insights into human nature that still are true.

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird helped us to see ourselves in ways we hadn’t seen before.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped mobilize opinion against slavery, and Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle helped force a cleanup of the meatpacking industry.

Reading – whether the material is literature or nonfiction – is an active process. It engages the brain in a different way than does the largely passive activity of watching television or a movie. The interactivity of reading is a far cry from the interactivity of responding to the visual stimuli of a video game.

The printed word gives the mind time to digest and question information in a way that the fleeting images on a screen do not. It offers a far greater opportunity for critical thinking, something we seem increasingly to lack.

I’m sure that there are many factors in the decline in reading, but after years of observation, I cannot help wondering whether a big part of it is that people get all the way through school without learning to read well.

The inability – or unwillingness – to read limits knowledge, and as Francis Bacon famously said, “Knowledge is power.”

Centuries ago, the church tried to keep its grip on power by clinging to a monopoly on knowledge. I don’t know who the new knowledge elite might be, but I’m pretty sure that having one would not be healthy for democracy.

James Madison said, “A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”

For a long time to come, much of that knowledge will still be in the form of the printed word.

Bill Brown can be contacted at 377 Quail Hollow Drive, Dadeville AL 36853 or by e-mail at