I needn’t labor on the inroads of our high tech age on our daily living habits, numerous studies elaborating on the atrophying of socialization and, dynamically, its impact on family life, parents and children exponentially independent of each other.
My purpose here is to focus on its intrusion upon our reading habits in this now predominately video age.
Consider the following:
According to The American Time Use Survey employing a representative sample of 26,000 Americans, reading for pleasure is now at its lowest point. Between 2004 and 2017, reading among men declined by 40%; among women, 29%.
Gallup tells us that the number of Americans who haven’t read a book in any given year tripled between 1978
For comparison, in 2017, Americans spent 17 minutes reading; 5.4 hours on their cell phones.
The menace of TV exceeds that of even social media. Some 60% of Americans eat their meals while watching TV. 47% of 9-year olds watch TV 2-5 hours daily (aft.org). On average, Americans TV binge 3-4 hours each day.
Collectively, a 2020 Nielson study reveals that the average American “spends a staggering 11 hours, 54 minutes each day connected to some form of media — TV, smartphones, radio, games” (abcnews.go.com). In short, many of us are media addicts.
You can reasonably assume this affects timeout for reading. It may also factor in our children’s continuing drop off in reading proficiency (henchingerreport.org), a vast subject in itself.
The reading of literary fare—poetry, short stories, novels, drama—has taken a special hit, even among those with college exposure, and across the board, regardless of race or ethnicity, exhibiting a ten year average decline of 14% between 1992 and 2002, according to the National Endowment for the Arts comprehensive study, Reading at Risk.
It comes at a cost. Literary reading in particular grows discernment, teaches values, fuels discussion as well as entertains. It liaisons us with the global community and cultivates cultural continuity. And, yes, it can keep us safe, crystallizing excess that imperils our well-being. All really good reads are fundamentally moral, underscoring the human contract to do the right thing by each other.
As for non-fiction, I haven’t gathered any stats, but it probably fares better. We’re not all literary aficionados and the choice of good non-fiction tomes crosses many genres, whether science, health, environment, psychology, philosophy, ad infinitum.
But judging from the The Times Best Seller Lists, most non-fiction reads will be of the self-help or business variety. You’re unlikely to find mind-bending items like Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, or Hoffler’s enduring classic, The True Believer.
As such, we impoverish ourselves if, when we do read, we do so indiscriminately. Our reasoning weakens. We see in fragments and not the whole. We become prey to parochialism and its hyperbolic distortions. Like our muscles, our brain prospers with exercise.
The bottomline is that so much of what we take for granted was once imagined. What better place to tap into its limitless underground caverns than a challenging read?
Through reading we meet ourselves, learn we’re not alone, find comfort, inspiration, and discernment. Not least, we encounter the coalescence of human experience, discover that each of us is its own rivulet flowing into a vast ocean of a greater Self.
Long term, the consequences of not reading become potentially devastating for both community life and democracy. Electronic resources foster instant gratification, replacing more concentrated effort. On the other hand, research shows discerning readers are more engaged in their communities. In sum, they help foster those values that promote the public’s interest and those amenities enhancing a functional democracy.
To not read is simply one more ingredient eroding family cohesion and breeding social isolation, not only pervasive, but advancing. It exchanges commitment for passivity.
As humans, we discover our individual identity through assertion. “To be or not to be? remains the existential question. Good literature inculcates not only its resolution, but its how.
Reading requires concentration, an intellectual skill that improves with exposure. To forfeit its dividends for Esau’s porridge of instant gratification with its fallout for the family and community is nearly too nightmarish for me to contemplate.