Can you remember the last time someone asked you what book you're currently reading?( not when you're actually holding a book with an obstructed cover, but generally speaking). Caleb Crain, a contributor to The New Yorker's Winter Fiction Issue, raises some interesting points in an article titled "Twilight of the Books" about the decline of reading for pleasure among Americans and a simultaneous shift in our culture from literacy and reading to what scholars refer to as a culture of "secondary orality."
Crain analyzes data from a report issued by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2004 and its follow-up released last month. The gist of the data is this: from 1982 to 2002, the percentage of Americans who read literature has declined in every single age group AND in every generation, meaning, we are reading less as we age and we are reading less than people who were our age 10 or 20 years ago, he says.
So what exactly does this mean for us?
Well, as you can imagine, if we're reading less we're probably watching more tv, we're online more often, and probably a lot more into the whole YouTube thing. That being said, how can we gauge whether or not this shift is good or bad? Crain reports that research shows too much tv worsens performance among school-age children in reading, science and math, but that an 'appropriate' amount of television can be helpful -- say, an hour of Sesame Street for a 5-year-old.
The Internet, likewise, doesn't appear to be as evil as many humanist literati and proponents of print culture might wish it to be. As Crain puts it, "The Internet, happily, does not so far seem to be antagonistic to literacy." One study he cites shows that reading scores actually rose among children with more time spent online. However, it measured for print-like internet usage more than video.
So is this shift from reading to television, internet and the like, harmful or helpful? Well, at this stage in the game, it seems to be unclear. Crain notes that as we move toward image-based communications and derive our information and knowledge from these sources rather than through the printed word, we are moving toward a 'more oral' culture, one of "secondary orality."
What researchers and scholars do know is that oral cultures tend to think in very literal terms; they value stereotypes and cliches as an accumulation of wisdom, and depend on stories and images where words have simple and often singular meanings, probably because they had to memorize everything and recite it at the drop of a hat. In contrast, literate cultures, in the act of writing and recording new information alongside the old, engage in more abstract, analytical comparisons and critical thinking.
So why are Americans increasingly drawn to internet and tv over books? Crain doesn't really offer much explanation. He cites a scholar from 1967 who claimed that moving images and sound bytes allowed viewers to establish more emotional connections with the subject or performer, but at the same time says that because of a more intense emotional conneciton, television viewers may find it more intolerable to spend time with ideas/people/thoughts that are disagreeable to him or her and so may change the channel, implying perhaps we like tv because if we find an idea disagreeable we can just 'tune it out?' ( readers should also note that the NEA study found that those who read for pleasure are actually much MORE likely to engage in other activities such as sports, exercise, painting, volunteering, going to museums or the theatre.)
Again, when was the last time someone asked you what book you're reading, rather than, what YouTube videos, movies, or tv shows you've seen? Why are Americans abandoning the book for something that in all likelihood is a lot less stimulating and a lot more simplistic? What is it about tv that's so much more compelling than a novel?