Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Help save our country: read books

There was an excellent op-ed piece by National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia in Sunday's Boston Globe about the decline of interest in literature:

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!)


Chris said...

Paris Hilton gossip???


--Chris (dFm)

Brenda Coulter said...

Der Fieldenmarshal, does your wife know you're over here asking about Paris Hilton?

Kristin said...

I am just curious to know how this person knows people aren't reading? Who keeps track of this type of thing? How do you quantify it? By the number of books sold? Or which books are checked out most often from the library?

I just think this is not a fair observation...personally, I am so cheap I rarely buy books brand new. I usually go to the local thrift shop and get my books used for 25 cents or $1.

Brenda Coulter said...

Oh, there's no question that reading literature is very much on the decline. For some hard facts, check out Reading at Risk", a study released last summer by the NEA. The big shocker was the finding that fewer than half of American adults ever read literature. No novels, no nuthin'.

Robyn said...

I tend to tune out when someone starts ripping an entire medium- although I have found it funny when television actors tell you, in a television commercial, not to watch television because it's bad for you.

I don't think you can paint the whole internet with the same brush, but there's just something about curling up with a book in your hands, as opposed to staring at a screen. I think we, as a society, are the worse for not reading. Researchers did a study of teenage girl's diaries now and 100 years ago. The girls of old (who were very well read) put their thoughts together beautifully, and tended to think on what their intellect and emotions were, as well as the state of the world around them. Today's girls had rambling thoughts which were focused primarily on their body image and romantic relationships. Lots of reasons for the dichotomy, I know, but I personally think reading, or the lack of reading, has had an impact.

Small Blue Thing said...

I'm back!!

Hi there, Brenda.

I can't think that non-reading thing maybe an american illness at all. Here in Spain _inside my dear Eurotrash compactor, the problem is the same _and thousands of small bookshops are getting closed because of.

By the way, I have several visitors to my blog searching for pictures on the Web. It's Destiny.

... And congratulations for the new picture :)

Blue Thing

Brenda Coulter said...

Blue Thing, it's good to have you back.

I knew reading was down in the UK, but I hadn't heard anything about the rest of the world. Tragic, isn't it? Those of us who are readers can't imagine how anyone could ever lead a full, rich life without books.

I've been getting a lot of comments about my new photo, which I don't think looks all that much like me, except for the messy hair. ;-) I took it myself and posted it because I thought it would make a good joke--a nice change from the ubiquitous "here's the fabulous author!" photo.

Anonymous said...

IF I didn't read so much I could get more house work done, and more sleep at night! :-)
oh and Brenda, you look like a movie star in you new pic.

Small Blue Thing said...

Oh, and it's getting worse. As you know, I work with teenagers and everytime I try to make them just two things _reading and thinking by themselves, not to complete a curriculum to be "efficient".

A nice challenge, isn't it? It is a Great challenge since parents don't read _don't think either by themselves. Nor parents, nor politicians, neither TV (this the less, of course). But I'm still on the road _making them learn verbs or structures is a nonsense if they can love a simple poem in all their lives. But reading love is not... how have I said before? "efficient".

And, for Kristin, it's easy to realize how reading is in way to extinction _for instance, in Spain it's a true tragedy how small bookshops are just desapearing, and small editors with them. In a few years, all of us will be condemned to Amazon's picks.

Blue Thing