July 09, 2004
Reflections On the Ill-Read Society

Yesterday, I read an interesting article in the New York Times called "Fewer Noses Stuck in Books in America, Survey Finds" (registration required). Not quite an eloquent title, but the article discusses the decline in reading amongst Americans in all demographics. A survey called "Reading at Risk" was released yesterday by the National Endowment for the Arts who is really more interested in the percentage of people reading novels, short stories, plays and poetry. The survey is inclusive of all literature however. According to survey data, fewer than half of Americans over 18 read any of the above mentioned genres of literature. Demand for books in all different genres has greatly diminished through the years. Bruce Weber writes,

"What this study does is give us accurate numbers that support our worst fears about American reading," said Dana Gioia, the chairman of the endowment, who will preside over a discussion of the survey results at the New York Public Library this morning. "It quantifies what people have been observing anecdotally, but the news is that it has been happening more rapidly and more pervasively than anyone thought possible. Reading is in decline among all groups, in every region, at every educational level and within every ethnic group," he said, calling the survey results "deeply alarming."
Whaddya know? People have been predicting this for years. In light of our culture's blatant aversion to anything that doesn't include commercials, Weber goes on prodding for possible reasons,
"The study, with its stark depiction of how Americans now entertain, inform and educate themselves, does seem likely to fuel debate over issues like the teaching and encouragement of reading in schools, the financing of literacy programs and the prevalence in American life of television and the other electronic media that have been increasingly stealing time from readers for a couple of generations at least. It also raises questions about the role of literature in the contemporary world."
Interestingly enough, awhile back, I discussed my "distaste" for many of the classics we've all come to worship. Kevin Starr, professor and librarian was interviewed for the article and remarked,
"There are two distinct cultures that have evolved, and by far the smaller is the one that's tied up with book and high culture. You can get through American life and be very successful without anybody ever asking you whether Shylock is an anti-Semitic character or whether 'Death in Venice' is better than 'The Magic Mountain'.
I suppose it wouldn't disprove his point if I admitted I have no clue what he's talking about? Being well-read and its usefulness in society. Now that's a discussion I could sink my teeth into. I would break that concept up into two points of discussion. The question of whether or not people should be well-read is a simple one. Yes. The greater question is well-read in what? We all agree this nation could stand to stress literacy just a tad more. Heck, from the cultural context I know for a fact that Black families don't stress reading nearly as much as other cultures. In terms of what literary work should occupy the arsenal of the average American adult, I say it should vary. The last thing we need is a bunch of ninnies running around quoting Dickens; especially when there's so many well-written and prolific treasures collecting dust in the corner of the library. Many are even written by foreigners. If we're all reading the same books do we really have a well-rounded society?

I'll be the first to admit, I'm a skimmer and a speed reader. I read for information more than pure enjoyment and enlightenment. School pretty much beat the life out of any passion I would have had for reading. I think this is why I've never been into fiction. I can count on two hands the number of books I've read cover to cover yet I can talk "classics" with the best of 'em because thanks to my European education, I have in fact read quite a few (just not all the way through). In many ways, institutions of higher learning have created this normative and "high-class" definition of what it means to be well-read. I don't quite buy it. Rarely do people ever stop to examine if some of the work we've esteemed so highly is in fact, putrid and circular tripe. Two words: James Joyce. Understand, I'm not suggesting we throw the baby out with the bathwater, but I certainly think some high school english reading lists have become a bit homogenized. On the other hand, in some schools we'd be making progress if they were just able to get books. The privileged side of me is a bit strong in this area, but I realize the complete lack of appeal of our classics of yesteryear to many of your average teenagers. Reform of some sorts is definitely in order.

So why is our society so ill-read? Here's a hint: Kevin Starr reminded us in the article that today our society has no "canon". See there's this one book that's pretty amazing. It's been around for years and it's the number one best selling book worldwide. It's divided into 66 sections and includes every type of literary style you can imagine. It contains narratives and soliloquies, symbolism, allegories, and poetry. It's the most intelligent piece of literature you will ever read. It's called the Bible. Read it some time.

Hebrew culture was (and is) steeped in the Torah and other wisdom writings. The average kid could quote more scripture than I have memorized today. A love for reading the Bible was cultivated early in most young people. Even in the New Testament, common people and unbelievers knew the law of Moses and promise of the coming Messiah. By all indications, our predecessors were astute students of the Word. This is a foundation that is slowly being eroded by a society that loves to hate God. The true love for reading was once found in a society that held a universal tenet. We've surely got some work to do and I'm certainly not about to go back and finish The Odyssey so I can impress somebody by referencing Homer in the boardroom. Fat chance.

Posted by Ambra at July 9, 2004 01:22 AM


The question of being well-read in what is a good one. I've been taking a few courses toward an MA in US history at our local university, and I think it'd be great if some of my fellow students had read ANYTHING about our history before coming to class. For example, they had only the vaguest idea that there was a country called the Soviet Union, or that we fought a cold war with it for several decades, etc, etc.

I had my own run-in with James Joyce in high school, and it soured me on "great literature." I think it's good for an educated person to be familiar with "the classics," but such knowledge is sort of the adornment to a sound, basic education.

Posted by: docjim505 at January 14, 2005 11:06 AM

Archives Columns