Turn­ing the fi­nal pages

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - STEPHEN MATCHETT

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

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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