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August 23, 2006

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Kevin Wignall

Hi Larry, I think we had a similar discussion over at Contemporary Nomad recently. I suspect the number of readers is probably the same, or higher, than it's been traditionally, but there's less cultural respect for books than there was in the past.

One worrying trend in the UK (which I hope isn't shared elsewhere) is the decline of book reading at school. Eng Lit can murder books but it's still worrying that you can study it to "A" level (the qualification needed to get into university) without reading a single whole novel or play. Compare that to "A" level twenty years ago when, over two years, you had to study in depth six classic novels, three Shakespeare plays, Chaucer and a volume of poetry.

guyot

I actually believe the number of readers (at least young readers) is down, and a major reason is what Kevin says - decline of book reading in school.

DVD's and video games are also a major factor, imho. Our society's attention span has dropped significantly in the last twenty years. Everything is about speed, about instant gratification.

I am very proud of the fact that my children love books and have no idea what a video game is.

Whenever I mention that I think kids are reading less, people always shout about the Rowling books. But in my own unscientific exploration, I've found many more kids who don't read regularly than do.

It all comes down to the parents. If you read, and expose your kids to reading, actually promote reading to them, they will read.

Gregg Olsen

It isn't just the kids who aren't reading. I'm a writer. I have to confess I don't read books as much as I used to. It isn't that I don't buy books, but I can't tell you how many times I've started one only to abandon it. They don't grab me. They feel like a chore. I have a thousand other things to do. I miss the days when I had the time/interest in carrying a book from room to room, place to place, just because I didn't want to miss the chance to read a few more pages.

Rebecca

Kevin - Just out of interest, when you say "without reading a single whole novel or play" do you mean that students read only excerpts? Or that the syllabus is all poetry and short stories? Or that students are assigned books to read and report back on INDIVIDUALLY instead of the entire class reading the same book at the same time? Or that the focus is exclusively on grammar and composition to the exclusion of literature? Or that the books are assigned, but students get away with using cribs and cliff notes? (Or that on the day of the exam panic-stricken youngsters exclaim "I haven't read any books! I can't remember! I didn't read anything!" - a phenomenon which I have seen.)

As a comparison, a high school English class in New York will assign anywhere between four and eight "full length" books (novels or plays) per academic year to the entire class. (The variation in number depends on the level of the class - maybe the equivalent of the difference between A-level and O-level in the UK?) In an increasing number of schools students will also be expected to read several novels on their own, independently of their classmates.

I think the question might not be ARE people reading, but WHAT are they reading? Obviously not the Tampa Tribune, in Larry's experience. Not the works of Homer (the poet, not the Simpson). A fair number of the books devoured by my students are, in my opinion, crap. But that doesn't mean they aren't reading. (For that matter, newspapers are struggling across the US, as more and more people turn to the internet for their news. Is it "not reading" if you read off a screen?)

I don't think there's any doubt that our shared cultural referents are TV and to a lesser extent film, rather than books. This makes reading more of a private activity than a group one. But I'm not sure that it's a problem that the reading community is so fragmented. E pluribus unum.

David Thayer

Building on Rebecca's thoughts and Kevin's, fiction is where children begin to explore the world outside their experience, to learn language, and to use their imagination. In the US adults are urged to distrust their imaginations, to conform and hone their corporate survival skills. Novels tend to subvert this process, to reopen closed minds. That's like a trip to the dentist's office for many.

Lana Lang

I have a lot of friends who tell me the same thing: "I love to read, but I just don't have time."

My general view, though, is that you make time for the things you really love to do. So I suspect people don't really love reading as much as they would like to think.

Also, many books require a large commitment of time and I REALLY have to like a book to devote 8-10 hours to it. Most books, quite frankly, fail this test -- with most new writers, I usually don't get past the first 50 pages.

Graham

I know that I personally never read the book review pages in the local paper. I stick to the importants parts: sports and comics.

As for readers, my six year old daughter's reading ability has improved to the point where she stays up reading about Junie B. Jones pretty much every night.

OTOH, I think Gregg has a point. MANY of the books I have read recently were written 20, 30, or 40 years ago. I suspect it's just that old paperbacks happen to be to my taste, since I also love the new books from Hard Case Crime.

Ingrid (I.J.Parker)

I had to deal with this issue when teaching literature to undergraduates. Their excuse for not reading the assignments was usually that they had too much to do or that the material didn't relate to them. Translation: reading takes more effort than watching TV.
There is the vocabulary, for instance. If you haven't read, you don't know the words. TV makes sure that only simple words are used.
Then there is the fact that you must imagine people and places. TV does this for you, with the result that children have lost the faculty to imagine the world of the printed page.
Because readers these days are so heavily influenced by film and television, they demand books that consist mostly of dialogue and action scenes.
Even then, I think, readers of fiction tend to come from an earlier generation. The young buy non-fiction nowadays.

Kevin Wignall

Rebecca, they're actually given excerpts to study.

Bear in mind that "A" level results have improved year on year in the UK for the past 20 years, to the point where 24% were awarded at Grade A this year. At the same time, university lecturers are increasingly having to offer remedial English and Maths courses.

Even so, I remain positive about reading. I was in a bookshop today and it was doing brisk business - and surely the intention of reading is almost as important as the reading itself.

Larry Gandle

My kids don't read and look at me! I just think the schools pile on so much work and required reading that TV looks much more attractive to them. They would much rather watch reruns of 'Friends' than crack another book.

David J. Montgomery

I scarcely know anyone who reads. I'm constantly trying to give away books to people, and I don't even know anyone who'll take them.

That's damn sad.

ed

I have to wonder about this Gettysburg experiment. Could it be that the office culture, which often promotes and rewards stupidity, had something to do with it?

John S.

It's frightening. We were playing Trivial Pursuit once. A girl playing was a senior in high school troubled me with how much she didn't know. And we were told that she passed high school by a very narrow margin.

OTOH, she could tell you damn near anything about Friends.

Maybe it is a culture thing. Reading just isn't "cool" anymore. Look at some of the popular young people today.

Clair Lamb

I've had the same experience as David. I often wind up with multiple copies of books, and offer duplicates to the folks at my post office or the people at my gym -- only to be told, "I wouldn't have time for it." A postal clerk who did accept a book returned it to me this morning, saying it had been in her locker for four months and she felt bad that she hadn't had a chance to read it.

But I bet she watches "Desperate Housewives."

Philip Patterson

Hi Sarah

"Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers...." that's all I can remember.

Or were the first two lines of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:

1212 Union Street
Gettysburg, PA

(ah-ha-ha - a very poor Limey joke for you)

An interesting post, and I have to agree with Mr Wignall on this one, that the Brits would do no better. The education system here has changed massively in the last 20 years, and the emphasis on the canon of literature seems to have slipped. As Kevin and I were taught under the same system, our view is these youngsters only have to turn up to get an `A' grade. Are we getting old, Kevin? Knowing you, Kevin you could probably tell me the exact size of the Mad Mahdi's underpants at the battle of Omdurman.

Without sounding like the old fart that I am rapidly turning into, and thinking like my parents, I am sure that the education system is not as good as it once was. Then again, I cannot operate an ipod without breaking out in a cold sweat.

There are more books available than ever and people still read. It is always difficult to tell who is doing the reading. Do 18-30 year old males read as much as they used to? Did they ever?

Yours


Phil

Maria

Before I started writing, I never read a book review. I simply browsed the bookstore and/or library and took home a few to try.

I pay more attention now to reviews, but I still only read them online.

As for kids, when I worked in the library, every year, kids came in with a large list of books from school. They had to choose one or more to read. My opinion was often sought: "What is the best on this list? What is the coolest?"

The schools that put things such as "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" and other trendy titles--those books were chosen and read.

Those teachers that assigned classics? The students would often check out cliffnotes. I'm not kidding. I saw it time after time.

Another trend: books that sold well were often on tape or CD--kids Really liked that idea. They frequently checked out both the hardbound copy AND the CD.

Part of it is marketing. Part of it is availability in a format the child will read. Some of it is readability.

I loved it when kids were willing to check out books, whether it was Harry Potter or "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." I felt they might accidentally learn to like reading because the books were not such a chore.

I had more than one kid come back in and tell me how much they loved the books, but it only happened one time with a "classic."

David Liss

I think the problem is a lot more complicated than the accessibility of DVDs and video games, which are a problem, but in my teaching days I knew some very smart students who were movie nuts, video game enthusiasts AND avid readers. In fact, with those students, it was their enthusiasm that set them apart. They didn’t watch or play to kill time, they watched and played actively. Consequently, they were more open to the most active and demanding of entertainments: reading.

I am very concerned about the decline of reading in popular culture, not just because it is a trend that affects my career or something about which I care, but because this sort of passivity plays out in very dangerous ways in society. I am completely convinced that reading makes you smarter. It sharpens your critical thinking. I makes you see things in perspective, and from different perspectives. When I was a kid (I’m 40 now), my parents and neighbor’s parents read all the time. Those same people, not just equivalent people (i.e., me and my neighbors) now almost never read.

What are the consequences? It seems to me it’s more than just a decline in reading and books. People with no critical thinking skills are at risk of surrendering the things they most value. It is conceivable that a population of dull non-readers could someday live in a country ruled by a corrupt and greedy despot who blatantly erodes civil liberties and destroys the reliability of elections. Meanwhile, this theoretical, dystopic society, so unused to critical thinking, analysis, or trusting its own ability to reason, could sit idly by. Or maybe that just science fiction.

David J. Montgomery

One comment I would add is that I don't think the decline in reading is the fault of the educational system. It's the fault of parents and kids themselves.

Parents don't read and don't value reading, therefore they don't encourage their kids to read.

Kids, like adults, are lazy and unimaginative and would rather watch TV, IM or play PS3.

There's very little that teachers or schools can do to overcome that.

David Liss

I have to (very respectfully, of course) disagree with my swell pal David Montgomery on this one. I think parents and kids do bear responsibility, but I also blame the curriculum, which is non-demanding and geared toward the passing of standardized tests. That it, it is geared toward memorization and group think rather than creativity, intellectual curiosity, and promoting the notion that knowledge has value for its own sake. Our secondary schools exist to teach job skills or to get students into universities. Universities exist to provide students with advanced job skills. University students routinely ask “why do I have to know this?” when required to take humanities courses. When I was in graduate school, my advisor – who did 18th century British lit – told me that he would no longer assign Fielding’s Tom Jones because students won’t read it. One of most important 18th century texts, and one of the most important works in the history of the novel, but it wasn’t assigned because it was too long. We desperately need an educational system, on all levels, that will dare to challenge students, dare to make them learn to read.

Sharon

I am an avid reader and have a 4th grader in public school who is a struggling reader because of a learning disability so I set an egg timer for a min. of 10 minutes every day and he has to read before he is allowed to watch cartoons.

He also receives services through the school and I discovered that the library system and other nonprofit groups will mail books on tape to the blind or learning disabled for free. He listens to 3 books on tape per month (usually fiction) and loves them--he can sometimes quote entire passages to me. So, no, I don't think you can blame the schools, standardized testing, or electronic media entertainment for a non-reading culture. Like good nutrition, polite behavior, and other desirable qualities, reading books is instilled by parents modelling and supporting this kind of behavior.

David J. Montgomery

But David, can the schools force that desire to read into the kids' heads? Can they make it stick?

I would hope that they could, but I don't think it's possible.

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