By the mid 20th century, America boasted internationally preeminent traditions in literature, art, music, dance, theater, and cinema. But a strange thing has happened in the American arts during the past quarter century. While income rose to unforeseen levels, college attendance ballooned, and access to information increased enormously, the interest young Americans showed in the arts -- and especially literature -- actually diminished.
That's a little scary, isn't it?
That individuals at a time of crucial intellectual and emotional development bypass the joys and challenges of literature is a troubling trend. If it were true that they substituted histories, biographies, or political works for literature, one might not worry. But book reading of any kind is falling as well.
That such a longstanding and fundamental cultural activity should slip so swiftly, especially among young adults, signifies deep transformations in contemporary life.
I did want to quibble when Gioia suggested elsewhere in the article that surfing the Web is not a mind-stretching activity. We're not all here to read Paris Hilton gossip,* download MP3 files, and engage in online gambling. Some of us come here to do serious research, or to keep up with world news and politics, or to read and discuss literature.
In fact, if you visited this blog on Saturday, you read a poem by William Wordsworth and were encouraged to click on a link to learn more about him and his work. And today, class, we're reading and discussing a serious piece about the disturbing decline of interest among Americans in reading books. So I'd say the Web is not entirely uninvolved in Dana Gioia's cause, wouldn't you?
I always want to raise my hand when people talk about the decline in serious reading and ask why nobody ever mentions the extensive reading that so many of us do online. Every day, we internet junkies peruse articles like Gioia's and browse websites that offer the complete works of Shakespeare, for example, and we even read blogs like this one. (Oh, don't worry, I'm not going to hold up my blog as an example of literary excellence, but come on--every once in a while, I accidentally write something that edges close to profundity, and I do encourage people to read more literature, so you really could say that reading this blog is good for your mind.)
But it's true that most people just aren't reading a lot of literature these days, and Gioia makes some good points.
Reading is not a timeless, universal capability. Advanced literacy is a specific intellectual skill and social habit that depends on a great many educational, cultural, and economic factors. As more Americans lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent-minded.I hope everyone will pop over there and read the entire article. And then go read a good book.
* Wow. It absolutely never occurred to me that I would ever have occasion to use the words "Paris Hilton gossip" on this blog. Now I suppose I'll be innundated with hits from the search engines. (Greetings, Paris Hilton fans, and my apologies. I know this isn't what you were looking for!)