Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Welcome to Post-Literate America

It turns out Americans aren't the reading types their ancestors were:

One in four adults say they read no books at all in the past year, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Tuesday.

Why would you even admit to that? Going three-hundred sixty-five days without reading a single book is even more appalling than voting in a presidential election.

I don't think it's impossible to overstate how ridiculous this. One out of four Americans live in a universe which is so much smaller than anything we who read could possibly imagine. This is going to have serious repercussions; indeed it already has.

There are at least two things that are striking about this. First, as readers of de Tocqueville know, he was surprised and delighted at the general level of education which existed in the United States during the middle of the 19th century, even as he was confounded about the almost complete absence of an intellectual elite. He notes:

I do not know that there is a country in the world where, in proportion to the population, there are so few uninstructed and at the same time so few learned individuals. Primary instruction is within the reach of everybody; superior instruction is scarcely to be obtained by any.
- Democracy in America, p. 58

Largely lacking any aristocracy, more so than any country of Europe at the time, and probably of any country at any one time throughout the history of civilization, the republic nonetheless produced a land wherein the average American was reasonably well educated. Its people, democratic in spirit even before the Declaration had been signed, were uniquely positioned for the type of government they had been given. And, at least up until the war between the states, they continued to nourish this spirit. In other words, our ancestors, even the poor and the stupid, took the time to read books.

At the same time, information is more readily available than at any other time in human history. Some of it is false, some is pernicious, but even besides blogs of questionable worth, such as my own, the musings of great dead men have been posted on the internet, this last bastion of freedom, for anyone with the time and the diligence to read. For the intellectually curious, it is a good time to be alive.

All of which makes the lack of intellectual vigor among the citizens of the dying empire to be particularly depressing. Le pain et le cirque for this generation.

The typical person claimed to have read four books in the last year — half read more and half read fewer. Excluding those who hadn't read any, the usual number read was seven.

I need more work on humility, or I'd attempt to calculate the number of books I've read in the last year. Suffice it to say, I think it's more than seven. Somehow being above average is less than exhilarating.


prepossessing said...

Very interesting post. I am an avid reader. My husband hasn't read a book in the four years that I have known him. I am dumbfounded by it. Books open up another world for us. I don't understand how a person can only read four books in a year, much less not read at all. When I have children I hope that they are readers, because reading is something that has always been here for me.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

Thank you. I echo your comments.

They always talk about the supposed red-state/blue-state divide, but that rift is small compared to that betwixt those who read and those who do not. Much like you, I am dumbfounded by the "other America".

troutsky said...

Perhaps more pernicious than not reading is not discussing (I believe them to be directly linked). There can be no democracy without informed discussion as we are currently demonstrating in this country.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

So step one is to become informed by reading the "right" books; then step two is to discuss, hopefully in a civilized manner. Agreed, but I still see democracy as broken since few will take the time to become informed, to say nothing of discussing without resorting to ad hominem attacks.