A gloomy picture --- that's what "Reading at Risk" paints of our future. It's a study released in July 2004 by the US National Endowment for the Arts. Literacy, in the higher sense of the word, has been declining at an accelerating rate for the past two decades. Less than half the population now reads even one book of fiction annually. Dana Gioia, NEA Chairman, comments on the societal implications:
Reading a book requires a degree of active attention and engagement. Indeed, reading itself is a progressive skill that depends on years of education and practice. By contrast, most electronic media such as television, recordings, and radio make fewer demands on their audiences, and indeed often require no more than passive participation. Even interactive electronic media, such as video games and the Internet, foster shorter attention spans and accelerated gratification.
While oral culture has a rich immediacy that is not to be dismissed, and electronic media offer the considerable advantages of diversity and access, print culture affords irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex communications and insights possible. To lose such intellectual capability --- and the many sorts of human continuity it allows --- would constitute a vast cultural impoverishment.
When it came out "Reading at Risk" provoked significant, thoughtful commentary in the press. Andrew Soloman observed (in the New York Times, 10 July 2004):
... Kafka said, "A book must be an ice ax to break the seas frozen inside our soul." The metaphoric quality of writing --- the fact that so much can be expressed through the rearrangement of 26 shapes on a piece of paper --- is as exciting as the idea of a complete genetic code made up of four bases: man's work on a par with nature's. Discerning the patterns of those arrangements is the essence of civilization.
Solomon went on to diagnose the crisis in reading as a threat to national health and to political life. He concluded:
Reading is harder than watching television or playing video games. I think of the Epicurean mandate to exchange easier for more difficult pleasures, predicated on the understanding that those more difficult pleasures are more rewarding. I think of Walter Pater's declaration: "The service of philosophy, of speculative culture, towards the human spirit is to rouse, to startle it to a life of sharp and eager observation. . . . The poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass."
Michael Dirda (in the Washington Post, July 2004) commented that even the minority of people who still read aren't reading like they once did:
More and more, we have been straitjacketed and brainwashed by the books of the moment, the passing moment. Publishers know that they can promote almost any title to bestsellerdom. Glittery names and hot-button topics guarantee big sales, and so former presidents ... turn out their brick-like apologiae, even as aging Hollywood celebrities and rock divas produce glitzy children's picture books (no writing is harder to do well). And most of the nonfiction titles --- and half the fiction titles, too --- now seem to be about terrorism, homeland security or the ongoing crisis in the Middle East.
Dirda contrasted that with the mind-opening effect of worthwhile books and poems:
A true literary work is one that makes us see the world or ourselves in a new way. Most writers accomplish this through an imaginative and original use of language, which is why literature has been defined as writing that needs to be read (at least) twice. Great books tend to feel strange. They leave us uncomfortable. They make us turn their pages slowly. We are left shaken and stirred.
But who now is willing to put in the time or effort to read a real book? Most people expect printed matter to be easy. Too often, we expect the pages to aspire to the condition of television, and to just wash over us. But those who really care about literature nearly always sit down with a pencil in their hands, to underline, mark favorite passages, argue in the margins. The relationship between a book and reader may occasionally be likened to a love affair, but it's just as often a wrestling match. No pain, no gain.
This is why the NEA report shows that poetry is suffering most of all. Poets keep their language charged, they make severe demands on our attention, they cut us no slack. While most prose works the room like a smiling politician at a fundraiser, poetry stands quietly in the dusty street, as cool and self-contained as a lone gunfighter with his serape flapping in the wind. It's not glad-handing anybody.
And taking a look at "Reading at Risk" itself, there are some interesting statistical tidbits. The latest (2002) broad survey of readers in the US found:
In contrast to the dismal picture of reading trends are the findings on "creative writing" --- an activity which has actually grown over the past 20 years. An average of ~7% of the population compose stories, poems, or plays. Those with more education are somewhat likelier to write, as are those who are younger. But unlike the distribution of active readers, the chances of finding a writer are relatively independent of income and race. Perhaps the flame hasn't completely gone out yet ...