Will Reading Continue to Dwindle?

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A thinker sees his own actions as experiments and questions–as attempts to find out something. Success and failure are for him answers above all.
  – Friedrich Nietzsche

The Twilight of the Books offers evidence of a decline in reading.  Here are a few excerpts to prove their point:

“In 1937, twenty-nine per cent of American adults told the pollster George Gallup that they were reading a book. In 1955, only seventeen per cent said they were. Pollsters began asking the question with more latitude. In 1978, a survey found that fifty-five per cent of respondents had read a book in the previous six months. The question was even looser in 1998 and 2002, when the General Social Survey found that roughly seventy per cent of Americans had read a novel, a short story, a poem, or a play in the preceding twelve months. And, this August, seventy-three per cent of respondents to another poll said that they had read a book of some kind, not excluding those read for work or school, in the past year. If you didn’t read the fine print, you might think that reading was on the rise.

In 1982, 56.9 per cent of Americans had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. The proportion fell to fifty-four per cent in 1992, and to 46.7 per cent in 2002. Last month, the N.E.A. released a follow-up report, “To Read or Not to Read,” which showed correlations between the decline of reading and social phenomena as diverse as income disparity, exercise, and voting. In his introduction, the N.E.A. chairman, Dana Gioia, wrote, “Poor reading skills correlate heavily with lack of employment, lower wages, and fewer opportunities for advancement.””

The rest of the article provides further evidence to support these contentions.  One hypothesis is that reading will return to its pre-modern era state as an activity of a specialized reading class.  Back in the 19th century that class had some caché, this article suggests that may not be the case in the future; reading will be arcane.  Fine by me, but bad for a democracy relying on an educated electorate.

Something the article touches on only obliquely is the degree to which we may return to an image intensive culture, much like the middle ages where architecture, painting and other image creating crafts were primary teachers of the illiterate.  The article does talk about a second orality, a return to the type of communication common among pre-literate cultures where memorization and story counted for a great deal.  A potential downside of this return is diminishment of critical analysis since writing allows for side by side comparison of two ideas where in an oral culture only one notion at a time can hold sway, making critical thought difficult.

There are, however, contradictory trends not covered in the article.  The explosion of blogs, in the tens of millions, certainly represents a degree of literacy and creative writing not explained in the dismal statistics.  It also doesn’t cover the unusual merging of image and words in manga and graphic novels, nor does it expand on the second orality which in this case will have a cultural context supportive of critical analysis and, therefore, presumably available for transmission in more oral friendly forms like you tube, tv news, podcasts.   Still, a provocative look at tomorrow. 

Wouldn’t you know, just when I get down to serious writing…

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