12:21 pm
Mon August 9, 2004

Reading At Risk

A skill that needs to be practiced and developed.

Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Nicki's commentary.]

One sunny Christmas morning, as a friend and I were driving to her mother?s house, she made an observation that I haven?t been able to forget: ?Look at it out here, ? she said as the car wound through the empty neighborhood streets. ?When I was a kid we?d have all been out playing in the streets with our new bicycles on Christmas morning?. I contemplated the still houses as we passed by. ?I think the kids are all inside, playing with their new video games?. I said. ?You got it,? my friend responded. ?It?s a damn shame?.

I don?t know when this sea-change in our culture actually occurred---from a society where kids played outside with each other, to one where no one bothers to leave the house---but she is right. It is a shame.

There is another, less visible but equally sad change occurring alongside this small withdrawal from public life. According to a report issued by the National Endowment of the Arts, for the first time in 20 years less than half the population is reading literature. Entitled ?Reading at Risk?, the report states that in 2002, only 46% people polled said that they had read a novel in the previous year.

Now, I could have told you that people were reading less. I constantly hear even avid booklovers bemoaning the fact that they never seem to have enough time to read. Free time is a rarity in our lives, and the time required to do something as intellectually intensive as read a book is all but absent.

And make no mistake. Reading is an intellectually intensive, engaging activity. It is, as the NEA report says, a skill that needs to be practiced and developed. Even the simplest and most entertaining of stories requires its reader to be unusually focused on the words?a level of focus not required by other kinds of media? TV, the internet---even this radio piece that you are halfheartedly listening to as you are drive to or from work.

But does it really matter that we are reading fewer books as long as we are getting our information from elsewhere? Yes, it does.

The NEA study had one statistic in it that particularly brought that Christmas morning with its empty streets back to my mind. It turns out that readers are much more likely?three times more likely, in fact, to participate in other civic and cultural activities. They are more likely to do volunteer and charity work, more likely to visit museums and attend performances, and?this may surprise you?even more likely to go to sporting events than people who don?t read novels.

This isn?t because people who read literature are more educated, or more moral, or more loyal to their hometown teams. It is simply because all those lovely novels and poems have taught them how to become more engaged in their lives. The more you take part, the more you are become a part of the world around you.

Why is it for, example, that when the poet Wallace Stevens writes:

Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.


We see so much?the stillness of the winter day, the solitary bird in its momentary existence made excruciatingly real.

But when we read ?Federal agents search car in Pittsburgh on Sunday in connection with 2001 Anthrax threat?, as it crawls across the bottom of our CNN screen, it seems to say so little? And is forgotten within seconds as the next newsbyte scrolls by?

How is it that a poet can create, with fourteen completely ordinary words an entire vivid image in our minds, but a news program, with about the same number of words, can so easily blunt our perceptions?

That is the mysterious and wonderful thing about literature. Like all art it has the ability to bring the world inside ourselves. To make us understand what it is like to be someone else, something else, somewhere other than where we are now.

Literature makes the world a more beautiful, varied, and precious place to live. And it is a world so easily within your grasp: watch one less television show, and read one more book a month, and see if you don?t agree.