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Are Books on the Way Out?

- February 6, 2008

Some tidbits from Ursula K. Le Guin‘s “Staying Awake: Notes on the Alleged Decline of Reading” (here, gated) in the February Harper’s :

bq. In 2004 a National Endowment for the Arts survey revealed that 43 percent of Americans polled hadn’t read a book all year …

bq. I … want to question the assumption … 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?

bq. 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.

bq. …Writing-and-reading very gradually filtered downward, becoming less sacred as it became less secret, less directly potent as it became more popular. …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 gunslilngers all across the Wild West …

bq. 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.

bq. 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.

bq. Even during what I hae called the ‘century of the book,’ when it was taken for granted that many people read and enjoyed fiction and poetry, how many people in fact had or could make much time for reading once they were out of school? During those years Americans worked hard and worked long hours. Weren’t there always many who never read a book at all, and never very many who read a lot of books? We don’t know how many, because we didn’t have polls to worry us about it. …Lamenting over percentage counts induces a moralizing tone: It is bad that we don’t read; we should read more; we must read more. …Were [the hedonists who read because they want to] ever in the majority?

By the way, that same issue of Harper’s has two other articles that are well worth reading. One of them is David Gargills “Not What It Takes: Running for President on Less than $2,000 a Day,” which focuses on the hopeless long-shot presidential candidacy of Chicago businessman John Cox. The other — which is not for the squeamish — is Frederick Kaufman’s “Wasteland: A Journey Through the American Cloaca,” on issues related to the disposal of five billions of human waste per day in the U.S. alone.

[John posted a brief item on reading a while back; click here.]

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