Thursday, January 03, 2008

How Literary Reading is like the Dodo

Publishers received the literary equivalent of coal in their stocking over Christmas courtesy of Caleb Crain at The New Yorker. His article Twilight of the Books presented a depressing synopis of the state of reading in the US. It has long been the case that few people read more than a few books per year. Many read none; however, as Crian points out in his introduction to his essay, that so concerned where pollsters that they began changing the questions in order to make the results seem less bad. From ‘are you reading a book’in 1933 to ‘have you read anything in the past 12 months’ in 2007.

To those in the publishing industry the recent confirmation of the decline in book and newspaper reading merits significant concern and reaction. Most of us recognize that reading is still being conducted but not of ‘publishing’ material as we know it. In his article however, Crain takes the stats a step further and suggests that the impact of the decline in formal reading that helps readers develop and hone their ability to evaluate character, argument, plot and perspective is leading to a population of dumber readers.

More alarming are indications that Americans are losing not just the will to read but even the ability. According to the Department of Education, between 1992 and 2003 the average adult’s skill in reading prose slipped one point on a five-hundred-point scale, and the proportion who were proficient—capable of such tasks as “comparing viewpoints in two editorials”—declined from fifteen per cent to thirteen. The Department of Education found that reading skills have improved moderately among fourth and eighth graders in the past decade and a half, with the largest jump occurring just before the No Child Left Behind Act took effect, but twelfth graders seem to be taking after their elders. Their reading scores fell an average of six points between 1992 and 2005, and the share of proficient twelfth-grade readers dropped from forty per cent to thirty-five per cent. The steepest declines were in “reading for literary experience”—the kind that involves “exploring themes, events, characters, settings, and the language of literary works,” in the words of the department’s test-makers. In 1992, fifty-four per cent of twelfth graders told the Department of Education that they talked about their reading with friends at least once a week. By 2005, only thirty-seven per cent said they did.
Reading for pleasure is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history. It is possible (and maybe a Phd project) that the development of mass market reading also wrought massive hand wringing and consternation from those who controlled media in the 18th and 19th century. No doubt these owners and social and political leaders believed that society was being eroded and undermined and that the youth (and/or the lower classes) of the day were dooming the traditional publishing business to ignominious death. Whether the comparison with the drivers of change we currently see – social networking, gaming, television, etc. – represents a similar transition I do not know. What is certain however, it that publishing and reading will not disappear but will change and adapt to suit the market and perhaps evolution.

Why evolution? Read the article to understand how the brain develops based on external stimuli. This discussion might lead you to conclude that ‘new media’ could lead future generations to develop different cognitive powers than we currently possess.

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