Turning the final pages
READING for pleasure looks set to become the new bridge or bowls, an activity for the elderly that is in permanent decline, as generations of people who did not acquire the habit when young grow old. According to a recent report by the US National Endowment for the Arts, the percentage of US adults who read books for entertainment or edification declined in all age groups under 44 in the decade to 2002.
The only good news was that the change in reading patterns among older Americans was statistically insignificant.
I know of no comparable Australian figures, but one indicative number is in a 1997 Bureau of Statistics survey that showed two- thirds of people over 65 spent some time reading books and magazines, compared with one- third of those between 15 and 24.
If there is anything that encourages anguish among politicians and opinion page experts, it is evidence of a decline in reading, especially among the young.
Suggestions that the world will not end when nobody knows the plot of Middlemarch ( as if all that many readers have during the past century) enrage lovers of literature. Commentators claim reading widely for pleasure is the foundation of cultural literacy and that people will live impoverished lives if they cannot or, worse, wilfully will not read Hamlet, or The Man from Snowy River , for that matter.
But whether or not such arguments have much meaning, they lost their impact when the digital age arrived.
To claim text on a bound set of pages has more intrinsic merit and meaning than information acquired online is a losing cause, given what anybody with internet access can discover in seconds. For all the ephemera that exists online, titles from any and every canon that are out of copyright are there for the printing and reading. Nor is there any overwhelming argument that a novel or poem, a short story or a play, can convey ethics and emotions better than a well- written and acted film.
The great cultural revolution of the 20th century was the way the electronic media expanded the audience for stories of all kinds. No matter how alarming the idea, more young people understand how arrogance and greed scarify souls from The Sopranos than from King Lear and their knowledge of vampire mythology comes from Buffy, not Bram Stoker.
There is not much anybody can do about it. Critics who claim declining interest in books demonstrates poor teaching, slack students or inert adults miss the point. What is happening simply shows that when the book does not enjoy a monopoly of information or entertainment people turn to other sources.
According to The Economist Brazil’s 25 per cent adult illiteracy rate in 2000 was due in large part to a culture that has always ignored education ( primary schooling was not universal until the 1990s), but also because radio was ubiquitous by the 1930s and ‘‘ the electronic experience came before the written experience’’. Even in big reading cultures, people adopted the electronic alternatives as soon as they could. In the 40 years from 1955 in The Netherlands ( television took off between 1956 and 1960), recreational reading more than halved, to 9 per cent of people’s spare time.
So, if books struggle to compete as mass entertainment against old broadcast media, what chance do they have against digital TV, the internet and electronic games where players participate in the plot? According to the NEA, on weekends and holidays, people over 15 in the US allocate an average of 26 minutes a day to reading, a bare four minutes more than they spend playing with computers. ( Before anybody assumes Nintendo and Microsoft are about to inherit the entertainment earth, TV takes up an average of three hours.)
This is why even erudite advocates of books and reading generally argue on utilitarian grounds, seizing on statistics that show declining functional literacy makes people less economically useful. Such arguments have little to do with culture and implicitly assume that reading is a competency, similar to numeracy or being able to use a computer.
Thus, the NEA points to the connection between reading and basic skills in science and maths, workplace proficiency and community engagement. It reports a direct correlation between the number of books in the homes of senior high school students and their performance in science, history and civics. People who read for pleasure are likelier to do everything from play sport to participate in politics and community events, the NEA argues. People should read fiction or history, poetry or politics to enhance their vocational or social skills, not for the joy of reading.
This is profoundly disturbing for people who read for the same reason they breathe: to keep their minds alive. Individuals who sit with a book for hours and open another as soon as they have finished the last one understand a delight that is shared by ever fewer people. Readers who wallow in the pleasures of the text have a power to create their own universe of ideas and emotions infinitely larger and more varied than that possessed by people who learn about life from The Sims or The Simpsons . And a nation’s conversation with itself is impoverished when the range of ideas it draws on is reduced to the immediacy of the electronic media.
The thought that young Australians will lose touch with the values and events that shaped the country and that are explained in My Brother Jack or Monkey Grip , The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith or Carpentaria is alarming. The possibility that a coming generation of young women will not learn about life from Jane Austen because they have no idea her books exist is appalling. It seems as if championing books as the staff of the life of the mind, as spiritually uplifting, as allowing us to understand the world in a multiplicity of ways beyond what images can provide is already a lost cause, that defenders of the book will make their stand under the banner of functional literacy alone.
Unless something unexpected occurs, it seems that we are on the verge of a world where a life shaped by reading is as foreign as it was before universal education and industrial scale printing made readers of the masses. But this time it will be because people have ample access to, but no use for, books.
For anybody who loves literature, who believes that reading widely, with no thought of practical benefit, educates an individual far more broadly than training in any discipline, this is a scary story.
review@ theaustralian. com. au