Article — From the February 2008 issue

Staying Awake

Notes on the alleged decline of reading

Some people lament the disappearance of the spotted owl from our forests; others sport bumper stickers boasting that they eat fried spotted owls. It appears that books, too, are a threatened species, and reactions to the news are similarly various. In 2004 a National Endowment for the Arts survey revealed that 43 percent of Americans polled hadn’t read a book all year, and last November, in its report “To Read or Not to Read,” the NEA lamented the decline of reading, warning that non-readers do less well in the job market and are less useful citizens in general. This moved Motoko Rich of the New York Timesto write a Sunday feature in which she inquired of various bookish people why anyone should read at all. The Associated Press ran their own poll and announced last August that 27 percent of their respondents had spent the year bookless, a better figure than the NEA’s, but the tone of the AP piece was remarkable for its complacency. Quoting a project manager for a telecommunications company in Dallas who said, “I just get sleepy when I read,” the AP correspondent, Alan Fram, commented, “a habit with which millions of Americans can doubtless identify.”

The Associated Press polled 1,003 adult Americans. The NEA’s “Reading at Risk” survey of 2002 announced dire declines in the number of book-readers. Their 1992 poll of 13,000 adults showed that 60.9 percent had read any book, but in 2002, only 56.6 percent had; in 1992, 54 percent of adult Americans admitted to having read a work of literature that year; ten years later only 46.7 percent did. Strangely, the NEA excludes nonfiction from “literature” in its polls, so that you could have read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Voyage of the Beagle, Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, and the entire Letters and Diaries of Virginia Woolf that year and yet be counted as not having read anything of literary value.

Self-satisfaction with the inability to remain conscious when faced with printed matter seems questionable. But I also want to question the assumption—whether gloomy or faintly gloating—that books are on the way out. I think they’re here to stay. It’s just that not all that many people ever did read them. Why should we think everybody ought to now?

For most of human history, most people could not read at all. Literacy was not only a demarcator between the powerful and the powerless; it was power itself. Pleasure was not an issue. The ability to maintain and understand commercial records, the ability to communicate across distance and in code, the ability to keep the word of God to yourself and transmit it only at your own will and in your own time—these are formidable means of control over others and aggrandizement of self. Every literate society began with literacy as a constitutive prerogative of the (male) ruling class.

Writing-and-reading very gradually filtered downward, becoming less sacred as it became less secret, less directly potent as it became more popular. The Romans ended up letting slaves, women, and such rabble read and write, but they got their comeuppance from the religion-based society that succeeded them. In the Dark Ages, a Christian priest could read at least a little, but most laymen didn’t, and many women couldn’t—not only didn’t but couldn’t: reading was considered an inappropriate activity for women, as in some Muslim societies today.

In Europe, one can perceive through the Middle Ages a slow broadening of the light of the written word, which brightens into the Renaissance and shines out with Gutenberg. Then, before you know it, slaves are reading, and revolutions are made with pieces of paper called Declarations of this and that, and schoolmarms replace gunslingers all across the Wild West, and people are mobbing the steamer delivering the latest installment of a new novel to New York, crying, “Is Little Nell dead? Is she dead?”

I see a high point of reading in the United States from around 1850 to about 1950—call it the century of the book—the high point from which the doomsayers see us declining. As the public school came to be considered fundamental to democracy, and as libraries went public and flourished, reading was assumed to be something we shared in common. Teaching from first grade up centered on “English,” not only because immigrants wanted their children fluent in it but because literature—fiction, scientific works, history, poetry—was a major form of social currency.

To look at schoolbooks from 1890 or 1910 can be scary; the level of literacy and general cultural knowledge expected of a ten-year-old is rather awesome. Such texts, and lists of the novels kids were expected to read in high school up to the 1960s, lead one to believe that Americans really wanted and expected their children not only to be able to read but to do it, and not to fall asleep doing it.

Literacy was not only the front door to any kind of individual economic and class advancement; it was an important social activity. The shared experience of books was a genuine bond. A person reading seems to be cut off from everything around them, almost as much as someone shouting banalities into a cell phone as they ram their car into your car—that’s the private aspect of reading. But there is a large public element, too, which consists in what you and others have read.

As people these days can maintain nonthreatening, unloaded, sociable conversation by talking about who murdered whom on the latest hit TV police procedural or mafia show, so strangers on the train or coworkers on the job in 1841 could talk perfectly unaffectedly together about The Old Curiosity Shop and whether poor Little Nell was going to cop it. Since public school education was strong on poetry and various literary classics, a lot of people would recognize and enjoy a reference to Tennyson, or Scott, or Shakespeare—shared properties, a social meeting ground. A man might be less likely to boast about falling asleep at the sight of a Dickens novel than to feel left out of things by not having read it.

The social quality of literature is still visible in the popularity of bestsellers. Publishers get away with making boring, baloney-mill novels into bestsellers via mere P.R. because people need bestsellers. It is not a literary need. It is a social need. We want books everybody is reading (and nobody finishes) so we can talk about them.

If we brought books over from England by ship these days, crowds would have swarmed on the docks of New York to greet the final volume of Harry Potter, crying, “Did she kill him? Is he dead?” The Potter boom was a genuine social phenomenon, like the worship of rock stars and the whole subculture of popular music, which offer adolescents and young adults both an exclusive in-group and a shared social experience.

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