Intellectual luddits are the worst
I wish I had more time to devote to reading, and Iím far from alone in holding that sentiment. Given the chance, I would sit in the library all day, every day. The problem with reading getting short shrift is not those who canít manage to squeeze it in, but those who couldnít be bothered. The merit of my other priorities might be dubious, but reading for pleasure at least makes the list. The A.C. Nielsen Co. reports that the average American spends four hours per day watching television. Not only is one-sixth of the average personís time devoted to leisure, it is expended in the particular realm of TV viewing.
This situation came about with the emergence of the affluent, middle-class lifestyle that mainstream America enjoyed in the years after World War II. The proliferation of household appliances and rising incomes made the increase in leisure possible, and television was the dominant consumer-electronics phenomenon in the 1950s. Whether there was ever any chance that one-sixth of every Americanís time on the planet would be spent reading is an open question. But the fact that books garner so little attention in the face of a number like that is disappointing.
One of the early achievements of the public education system, regardless of its record since then, is that it practically eliminated illiteracy. Aside from expanded economic opportunity, the system also opened up a great majority of the population to the possibility of enjoying literature. At the same time, the system tends to turn most students off to reading and by extension, to the scholarly exchange of ideas. This aligns nicely with its intended purpose of creating a large body of productive and complacent capitalist worker bees. Our school system is responsible for what is not so much a decline in reading as a lost opportunity.
As a form of leisure, reading does not share the ancillary benefit of social interaction and the concurrent consumer brinksmanship that has been a pillar of postwar American life. Sure, a shelf full of books may impress some people, but showing off the latest electronic toy has so much more oomph. Literacy and conspicuous consumption were both indicators of uncommon wealth and status in early America. The average personís capacity to read has been vastly outstripped by the average personís ability to fill his house with stuff. There is a much larger incentive to do the latter in todayís society. Beyond merely pushing books aside as a leisure activity item, the rapid spread of digital media has now started to erode the literacy of our society. The autocorrect feature of Microsoft Word has atrophied my ability to spell. Every English teacher I had in high school complained that students demonstrated the same level of professionalism in essays as they did in instant messages. Who wants to do research out of books when the Internet has put an unprecedented wealth of information at our immediate disposal? Granted that a lot of that information is wrong, and even more of it is useless, but itís so easy to access, can you blame us for being lazy?
As much as I wish it was not the case, the trend away from reading is clear. TV and the Internet arenít going anywhere. Perhaps itís not too much to hope that some people will buck the trend.
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