In our local News & Review paper, I read an article titled, “The Man Who Saved Reading.” Honestly, I didn’t know we were in danger of losing it, like an endangered animal teetering on the edge of extinction. The Great American Read, sponsored by PBS, had Americans reading by the thousands, perhaps millions. Local libraries throughout the U.S. are also responsible for keeping the literati alive in us. Series books like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games have excited the masses, of all ages, just to name two. But the article focused on the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and all the political wrangling the director of the NEA had to deal with before leaving to return to his writing roots, and how he struggled against Republicans (who consider the NEA “purveyors of smut”, if you can believe it) determined to cut their budget down to almost nothing. It seems to me that the one of the reasons for this is we value success more as a measure of financial and material wealth rather than as knowledge and wisdom gained through the enlightenment found in books.
The author of the article, Scott Thomas Anderson, wrote: “In 1953, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 described a future where novels are relics and human thought is enslaved by interactive screens.” Talk about foresight – and forewarned. The NEA directed the U.S. Census Bureau to conduct a large survey on the participation in the arts. This was the shocking result:
With the rise of digital media, less than half of U.S. adults were now reading literature.
Ouch. To top it off, the survey showed a ten-percentage point decline over the last twenty years, a loss of twenty million potential readers. Ouch again. This drop, according to the survey, spread across every age group, every ethnic group, both genders, and all income levels. The steepest decline was among persons aged 18 – 34 (the Digital Generation). Yikes.
Anderson also wrote: “Other studies by the NEA also showed that people who didn’t read books were less likely to vote in elections, volunteer for charities, and support cultural institutions [and, I believe, be less informed about life and different cultures in general].” If you don’t read and activate your imagination, get outside of yourself and escape into a good book, how can you vote (awareness of the issues), be more open-minded, and be willing to serve others?
The results make sense to me, especially the forewarning by author Ray Bradbury. You see it everywhere: people plugged in to their earbuds or headphones and tuned out. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to walk around young people so deep into their phones they didn’t even see me. We use computers (phone, laptop, etc.) to look up words and they finish the spelling for us. How can we learn/grow if machines do all the work? While technology certainly has improved some aspects of our lives, I also believe they’ve made us lazy because they can do so much more, much faster than humanly possible. (I still prefer to look up words in a dictionary, it keeps my spelling skills fresh.)
As writers, we can’t let good literature go extinct; we must rail against the onslaught of technology by producing worthy work. Are we, the authors, writing good stories to enthrall the masses, to keep good literature from disappearing? We MUST. It’s one of the reasons I no longer publish in eBook format. I prefer the feel of the book in my lap, the smell of the pages (especially the older classics, they just smell better), the look of some fonts, the touch of a good leather binding. It’s all a part of the reading experience and we, the writers, must do what we can to ensure that book reading does not go the way of the dodo bird. We must create good literature, evoke wild imaginations; we must inform, teach, and tell the good story worth reading.