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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    The real reason Americans don’t read

    It’s getting harder and harder to enjoy a good book these days.

    Last January I set out to read a hundred books in a year. Instead of watching “”Seinfeld”” reruns, I read Evelyn Waugh. Instead of watching CNN, I read about the Spanish-American War. And instead of watching any version of “”A Christmas Carol,”” I read the Dickens version.

    When I tallied up my final score on New Year’s Day, I found that I’d only made it to 80 – and that’s including the handful I didn’t finish. No matter how hard I tried, there just weren’t enough hours in the year for me to cram in a hundred books’ worth of reading time. But I still felt smarter than I think I would have had I spent that time watching George Costanza explain his affection for the word “”manure”” for the eleventh time.

    There was happy news for people like me Monday, when the National Endowment for the Arts announced the latest results of its annual survey of American reading habits. The percentage of Americans who reported reading a novel, a short story, a poem or a play has gone up, from 46.7 percent in 2002 to 50.2 percent in the last year – the first increase in that percentage since the NEA began investigating national reading habits in the 1980s. The NEA’s 2002 report was titled “”Reading at Risk;”” this year’s report is called “”Reading on the Rise.””

    There was sadder news tucked inside this report, though. The NEA also noted that 54.3 percent of American adults read a book for pleasure in 2008, down from 56.6 percent in 2002. That is, fewer Americans cracked the covers of a book -ÿbe it James Joyce, Stephen King or the “”Star Trek”” technical manual – without being told to by a boss or a teacher.

    This despite what NEA Chairman Dana Gioia, in an interview with the Washington Post, called “”a new sense of urgency”” over the last six years about the decline in reading, one that “”millions of teachers, librarians, parents”” and others had been trying to reverse. This despite a decade of cheerful assurances that Harry Potter had transformed all children into lifelong readers. What happened?

    Teachers, librarians and even parents are helpless to force anyone to read for pleasure. By definition, reading for pleasure excludes the whole idea of obligation. Try to imagine a teacher or a librarian having to persuade a teenager to go to a basketball game or drink a beer, and it will become obvious how nauseatingly “”good for you,”” how fatally infected with self-improvement the whole idea of reading has become in this country.

    The truth is that the decline of reading for pleasure has little to do with the things that teachers, librarians and parents seem to think are causing it. The majority of American adults are literate, and high school English curriculums are meant to teach them to analyze literature, not enjoy it. (It’s a wonder even as many as half of Americans still enjoy reading after being subjected to “”The Scarlet Letter.””) The reasons are more complex than that, and it’s not at all clear that better education or higher literacy would change Americans’ reading habits.

    Unlike, say, watching a movie, reading a book is necessarily a private experience. No matter how similar your opinion of a book might be to someone else’s, your experience of reading it will be different. Reading groups don’t make reading a public experience; they’re a place for people to share their personal experiences of a book.

    Because reading is a private experience, it’s an anti-social experience – as opposed to television or movies, which are social experiences. It’s still considered taboo to read at the dinner table, but no such rule forbids families from keeping the TV on in the background or even eating while watching it.

    Reading is also considered a frivolous activity – much more frivolous, say, than browsing the Internet. If you doubt this, try reading a book at work, even a book you’re reading for work, and see how fast you catch your boss’s attention – attention that your colleague who spends his days playing Minesweeper isn’t likely to attract.

    The NEA report notes that high casual reading rates correlate with doing other activities – playing sports, exercising, volunteering – indicating that a high degree of leisure time is necessary for reading. Almost 70 percent of college graduates read for pleasure; less than 20 percent of those who graduated from high school do. The worse your job is – the more time you’re forced to spend worrying about staying alive, in other words -ÿthe less time you’re going to spend reading for pleasure.

    The result of this is that the majority of Americans spend most of their time in situations where reading is discouraged. It’s a wonder, really, that we manage to read as much as we do. We live in a world of distractions. I realized this when I tried to read a book of poetry for the first time in years. You can’t read a poem with the radio or the stereo blaring, or even in a noisy café.

    Reading, as the great critic Harold Bloom has said, requires us to “”look inward,”” and our world relentlessly discourages us from looking inward. The franticness of our lives, the blaring exhortations of advertisements, the constant pressures of the social world -ÿall are engaged in a loud, unthinking conspiracy, of sorts, to keep us from sinking into introversion and self-examination.

    Obviously, an America whose citizens all read for pleasure would not be a perfect America. But it would be a better country than the one we live in now, simply because the values instilled by reading – imagination, skepticism, the capacity for thought – are also the values of citizenship.

    – Justyn Dillingham is the opinions editor of the Daily Wildcat. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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