September 2004

To read or not to read

By Gail Binkly

“Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord. . . . That was the year I came to the class at the start of the new semester and found only one student to sign up for Drama from Aeschylus to O’Neill. You see? How like a beautiful statue of ice it was, melting in the sun. I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths. No one wanted them back. No one missed them.” - Ray Bradbury “Fahrenheit 451”

Everyone knows that Bradbury’s famous science-fiction novel is about book-burning, but what few realize (since few nowadays have actually read the story) is that, in the futuristic world depicted in his tale, the government’s incendiary program to destroy the written word is hardly necessary. Only a handful of lonely souls still want to read books.

The rest are content to have their brains filled with the vapid chattering of characters who speak to them from the walls of their living rooms in a type of “surroundsound” television.

Those lucky citizens who can afford to purchase the service for all four walls are able, in effect, to live within their own TVs, even interacting with the fictional characters in snatches of insipid dialogue.

At one point this scenario probably sounded far-fetched, but clearly the future is here. We are becoming a nation just as vacuous as the denizens of “Fahrenheit 451,” and we’re doing it willingly.

Fewer than half of the adults in America now read any literature at all, according to a new report by the N a t i o n a l Endowment of the Arts. The report is based on a 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts conducted by the Census Bureau.

By “literature” the surveyors do not necessarily mean Great Literature – Dickens, Twain, Dostoevsky. No, reading just a single romance novel (“His hot hands fumbled with the strings of her bursting bodice”) in a year would qualify the respondent as reading literature, but most Americans evidently can’t bring themselves to work their gray matter even that hard.

More than 17,000 persons were interviewed for the survey, and just 46.7 percent reported reading literature in the preceding year. Only a marginal number more – 56.65 percent – read a book of any kind, whether a nonfiction political screed or a cookbook. The numbers are down by 10 percentage points from 20 years ago.

Even sadder, the steepest decline (28 percentage points) occurred among young adults. Coming generations, though expert at playing computer games, are less literate and less educated than their predecessors.

Does any of this matter? Perhaps not, if our primary purpose in life is to have sex, eat and go shopping. Television certainly provides enough information to help kids acquire the skills needed for those activities. And one can certainly make it through life without reading a single word of Shakespeare or, for that matter, John Grisham. Many people do. You’re far more likely today to find a home without a book in it than a home without a TV.

Some people argue that our enthusiasm for electronic media over books and magazines merely represents a harmless transition from one type of information to another – like moving from an oral culture to a written one.

But bookworms like me believe there will be enormous consequences, mostly negative, if our society largely abandons the habit of reading.

As others have pointed out, watching TV and movies is a passive act. Viewers are supplied with every sound and sight, leaving little to their imagination. Slumped on sofas with soda and chips, they boredly switch from channel to channel, demanding to be entertained. Books, on the other hand, require active concentration. They encourage a longer attention span and greater complexity of thought.

There’s another unfortunate side effect of electronic entertainment media that is rarely noted: The fact that they are so visual foments a culture that favors appearance over reality, superficiality over depth.

The heroes of literature do not have to be good-looking. We accept them because we are given glimpses into their souls. But stars of the screen must be flawless in appearance, and soon we start believing we ought to be as well. Instead of valuing people for their inner beauty, we focus on glowing white teeth, wrinkle- free foreheads and flat bellies. In our celebrity culture, looking young forever is our highest aspiration and an extreme makeover is the greatest gift one could receive.

As we stop reading books, as newspapers shorten and simplify their articles until they are shorter and simpler than kindergarten stories, as even dumbeddown magazines such as Reader’s Digest and TV Guide shorten their articles in a desperate effort to get the heavy-browed populace to read, we become a citizenry of silly sheep.

How can non-readers possibly be informed voters, when all their ideas about complex issues come from 30-second TV ads offering untruths, half-truths and gross oversimplifications? People know more about Paris Hilton than they do about the presidential candidates, and thus our leaders are chosen not by their ideas, but by their “charisma.”

Computers offer a wealth of information, but they are no substitute for books. Clicking here and there, hopping from web site to web site, does not lend itself to continuity of thought. If we forgo “War and Peace” for Windows and “The Iliad” for the Internet, we’ll be gaining little and losing a lot.

Gail Binkly is an avid reader who also loves cult TV shows but believes they should be viewed in small doses.