To read or not to read

Liam Julian
(FS View)

In this age of high speed Internet access, and cell phones that double as communication devices and personal organizers, an interesting question arises. Does anyone read anymore?

Yes, but the numbers are starting to dwindle. The National Endowment for the Arts recently released a study, titled “Reading at Risk,” in which it both identified and lamented the steady decline of American readers. The findings show that between 1982 and 2002 there was a 10 percent decline overall in the amount of adults who read literature. Between 1992 and 2002 the drop was an even more precipitous 14 percent, and those in the youngest age group — college student age — saw a 28 percent decrease in literature readers.

These numbers certainly aren’t encouraging, but to the endowment, they border on apocalyptic. A preface to the report calls the figures a “bleak assessment” and contends that they should be cause for “grave concern.” The alarming phrase “vast cultural impoverishment” also makes an appearance in the endowment’s introductory statements.

While these sentiments may seem exaggerated, the consistent decline in American consumption of literature is surely troubling. This is the first time in history where surveys have shown that less than half of the adult population reads. It indicates a society where speed, efficiency and practicality have come to dominate, and the time that it takes to sit down and truly appreciate a book just doesn’t seem quite worth the trouble.

With the growing preponderance of Internet and satellite news channels, people now have access to a never-ending stream of information, and it only takes a few seconds to gain a cursory overview of the day’s events. As adults have grown busier, and their children have grown up clicking a mouse since the age of two, it isn’t that surprising to watch good, deep reading taking a hit.

Harold Bloom, perhaps the most well-read literary scholar in the world, concedes the point. In his book “How to Read and Why,” he writes, “Information is endlessly available to us,” but he cannot help wondering, in this data-saturated world, “Where shall wisdom be found?”

Traditionally that wisdom was found in the realm of the arts, a realm in which literature is a major presence. The arts aren’t about gaining basic information; they exist to sate a deeper quest for knowledge. Philosophy, literature, painting, music, sculpture, architecture — these pursuits provide entrance and insight into questions that are far less quantifiable and palpable than the morning news.

But it is precisely that arcane and complicated nature, the very character that gives art its meaning and importance, which has doomed literature to increasing unpopularity in our modern society. The American social sense has become progressively more directed toward pragmatism, and the pursuit of basic, useful information is generally held in higher esteem than contemplative thought. One only has to look at the evolution of the American university system to observe this trend.

Higher education was once focused on the humanities. Beginning with the ancient Greeks, a solid liberal arts foundation was thought to be the best way to educate and form productive members of society. But our modern universities seem to have embraced and followed the general shift toward the designated “practical,” and even the nation’s best schools are starting to look less like academies and more like vocational institutions.

The top colleges once taught their students how to learn and think; now they teach them how to read stock charts and identify quartz.

Admittedly, as society and technology march steadily forward, it has become quite en vogue to bewail this “dumbing down” of culture, and to yearn for the days when everyone learned Latin and read Shakespeare. Of course there’s nothing wrong with being able to read a stock chart, but there is something terribly wrong with assuming that literature and art are no longer important and have lost their meaning and influence.

The best literature is timeless. Shakespeare is no less relevant today than he was hundreds of years ago. The world around us may be changing at an alarming rate, and it’s certainly foolish to reject that change completely, but there are some aspects of humanity that remain constant. It is art and literature, and their intense study and appreciation, which can lead us through turbulent times and help us to embrace the ambiguous but constant aspects of our lives and our human condition.

Reading literature is selfish. It is as much an aesthetic pursuit as an intellectual one. We read by ourselves, inside ourselves, and the most that we can hope for is a glimmer of insight into our own minds. Yet literature functions as so much more, especially in a society replete with superficial pleasures and often dependent upon menial routines. Literature and art, when approached with passion and commitment, provide an opportunity for that all too rare and deeply rewarding experience.

We read because we’re human, and we read to confront that uncertain humanity within ourselves. Literature is not merely an important grade-school subject to be saved from irrelevance, but in a sense, it represents our individual dedication to a thoughtful and truly progressive person: the individual “self.”

If we start to disregard this essential and personal development, the endowment is probably right to conclude that we will all eventually suffer the consequences.

Correction: In last week’s column, I mistakenly switched the titles of Julian Bond and Kweisi Mfume. Mr. Bond is the NAACP chairman, while Mr. Mfume is the president and CEO.

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