Readers at Risk

AT THE MIDDLE PASSAGE

By Walter Mills

As a child and a young adult, I was a fanatical reader of fiction. I haunted the school library until I had read everything that held the remotest interest.  When I got my first library card and was able to check out books on my own, I felt like I had entered a new country, the border, at least, of the realm of adulthood. Even today, when I visit an unfamiliar small town and come across the public library, I feel that I am in familiar territory.

These days I read much less for pleasure than I used to, much less than anyone else in my family. I hadn’t realized that made me part of a trend until the National Endowment for the Arts survey on America’s declining readership came out last week. The report stated that only a little more than one-third of adult males now read literature, which they define as novels of any kind, short stories, plays, or poetry. Almost two-thirds of adult men haven’t read so much as a Clive Cussler, a Stephen King, a Western or a mystery in the past year. Some haven’t read a novel in years, maybe since high school or college. The large majority of men don’t read, at least not for the joy of reading, and the rate of decline is growing fast.

We are a nation habitually short on time, and reading a book takes eight or ten hours we don’t feel we can afford to give up. A lot of our time we’re spending at work; Americans work longer hours and take less vacation than any other industrialized nation in the world. Maybe we’re too tired to read a book; reading takes more effort than sitting in front of the television.

We read for the joy of it, but there are benefits. Reading takes us out of the isolation of our selves and shows us what others are really like from the inside out. Through novels, we are allowed a glimpse into the actual experience of another human being, of seeing how the world looks through another pair of eyes. For kids, this is a rehearsal for the adult world. For adults, it’s a reminder of our shared humanity. Reading helps us live more richly and gives us a vocabulary in which to talk about ideas and emotions. Fiction is radical, individual, a counter to the lies and distortions of demagogues.  Why else do tyrants burn books?

According to the survey, reading has declined most steeply among young adults, age 18 to 24, falling at a rate 55 percent greater than the total adult population over the last ten years. In a nation where fewer than half of adults read any fiction at all, the creation of a new generation of parents who don’t read for pleasure is saddening, because children tend to become readers if they see their parents read. This means we are in some kind of a death spiral as far as literacy goes. Because so much of our culture is conveyed through books, the loss of the habit of reading has long-term effects.

We have already lost most of a generation of young adult readers, and we are not doing much to change the situation. When economic times get tough, library budgets are among the first to be slashed. That is true of school libraries as well, which is particularly sad because right now we are in a heyday of children’s literature. I’ve never seen so many outstanding novels for kids and young adults as have been written in the past few years. If we can get these wonderful books into the hands of our children and encourage them to read them, set an example by picking one up ourselves and talking about it, then maybe we will have made a reader for life.

I don’t know whether television’s easy, hypnotic charm is killing reading. But it is sad to think that we climbed out of a 100,000-year preliterate Dark Age just to sit in our caves watching the flickering electronic shadows on the wall.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

The above column originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times and is copyright © 2004 by Walter Mills. All rights reserved worldwide. To contact Walt, address your emails to: wmills@chilitech.com ).