The Risks of Not Reading

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
and 2014.

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.

–rj

2020 Draw-Bag Reading List

I can’t believe it! Another year has passed. Last year, I drew up my first annual Draw-Bag Reading List (2019). Happy to say, I’m glad I did it, as it structured my reading. While I didn’t get to read every book, I did read many and the plan kept me motivated. This year I’ve had better sense to list authors alphabetically, along with annotated commentary to remind myself just why I should read a particular book. There are so many wonderful books out there that I had difficulty choosing which ones should make my list.

I can’t say when I learned to read, but it was early, nor who my teachers were that taught me how, but I’m grateful. I am so much an offspring of the books I’ve read that I can’t fathom a life without them. In the witness of others, we find community and with it, both solace and wisdom.

A Happy New Year to all of you, filled with many hours of good reading.

FICTION:

Aciman, André. Call me by Your Name. (Coming of age novel by famed Egyptian writer)

Adiche, Chimanda Ngozi. Americanah. (Prize-winning novel by a Nigerian immigrant to U. S., who discovers what it means to be Black in America.)

Akhmatova, Anna. You Will Hear the Thunder. (Shafak says this is a book that makes her wish she could speak Russian.)

Alameddine, Rabih. An Unnecessary Woman. (Nominated for National Book Award, tells story of a 72 year old divorced woman who translates literature in her Beirut apartment.)

Atwood, Margaret. The Testaments. (The sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.)

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. (You’ll never see an urban landscape the same way again. Written by a superb intellect and rebel.)

Brookner, Anita. Hotel du Lac. ( Brookner’s novels center on intelligent, marginalized women attempting to find themselves in a society where the greedy and shallow often win out over the kind and generous.)

Choi, Susan. Trust Exercise. (Love between teens at a performance school meets teacher intervention. Pulitzer nominated.}

Clegg, Bill. Did You Ever Have a Family? (Nominated for Booker Prize, what happens when life throws you a curve.)

Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. (One of the most beautifully told family sagas treating issues of identity.)

Ishiguro, Kazuo. An Artist of the Floating World. (About aging, memory, solitude, loss, and art set in post war Japan.)

Johnson, Denis. Twain Dreams. (A novella of the American West that captures the ending of a way of life and the unfolding of a new America.)

Kafka, Franz. The Trial. (The classic novel that propelled Kafka to fame.)

Lerner, Ben. 10:04. (“Lerner captures what it’s like to be alive now, during the twilight of an empire, when the difficulty of imagining a future is changing our relationship to both the present and the past,” —Publisher)

Melville, Herman. Benito Cereno. (Poet Gary J. Whitehead wrote a screenplay adaptation.)

Mitford, Nancy. In Pursuit of Love. (Sardonic portraitures of upper class English life, mirrored on her own.)

Obreht, Téa. The Tiger’s Life. (Set in an unnamed Balkan country, a story of love, loss, and legend and novel debut by a Serbian-American novelist recognized as one of our most talented young writers.)

O’Brien, Edna. Country Girl. (Her debut novel that shocked Ireland with its sexual frankness. O’Brien considered one of the greatest living Irish authors.)

Robinson, Marilynne. Lila. (Girlhood lived on the fringes of society by one of our finest contemporary novelists,)

Rooney, Sallie. Conversations. (Remarkable debut novel by an Irish 26-year old that has rocked the literary world.)

Rooney, Sallie. Normal People. (Rooney’s most recent second novel many say is even better than Conversations. On Obama’s 2019 reading list.)

Rushdie, Salmon. Quichotte: A Novel. (Rushdie delivers with wit and humor reminiscent of Don Quixote}.

Shafak, Elif. The Bastard of Istanbul. (Good intro to Shafak, in my view, one of our foremost women authors.)

Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. (Perhaps America’s best female novelist, Wharton’s 1905 portrayal of upper class mores remains timely and brilliant.)

NON-FICTION

Ackerman, Diane. One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing. (Ackerman endures as one of my favorites. This book narrates what happens in a loving marriage when your spouse undergoes a devastating illness.)

A
manat, Abbas. A History of Modern Iran. (One of the best places to begin.)

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. (Baldwin’s first book (1955), a collection of ten riveting essays still relevant by a remarkable writer.)

Boska, Bianca. Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste. (Sensory, fascinating exploration of wine aficionado expertise.)

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. (The early classic that would initiate environmental consciousness.)

Epictetus. The Enchiridion. (Stoicism, with its philosophy of rational living and quest of virtue, begins with this ancient work.)

Goldstein, Joshua S. and Steffan A. Qvist. A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow. (Some countries have replaced fossil fuels. We can do the same by mid-century if we have the courage.)

McKibben, Bill. Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? (“As climate change shrinks the space where our civilization can exist, new technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics threaten to bleach away the variety of human experience.”)

Montgomery, Sy. How to be a Good Creature. (National Book Award finalist. Book features 13 animals from whom author has x learned life lessons.)

Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. (Ground-breaking history and analysis of capitalism and its contemporary contribution to rising inequality.)

Rich, Nathaniel. Losing Ground: A Recent History. (In 1979, we knew about global warming and how to stop it. This book tells of those who risked their careers to convince the world to take action before it was too late.)

Solnit, Rebecca. A Field Guide to Getting Lost. (Essays in Wanderlust, or of wandering, getting lost, and exploring new vistas and relationships.)

Stein, Murray. Map of the Soul—Persona: Our Many Faces. ((I knew Murray and his family well in my early youth. Murray went on to become a leading Jungian, the famed Swiss psychiatrist who influenced me profoundly.)

Wallace-Wells, David. The Uninhabitable Earth: New A Story of the Future. (The consequence in our near future of our not taking action to mitigate climate change.)

Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees. What They Feel and How They Communicate. (The title says it all. You’ll never look at a tree the same way again.)

–rj

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