27% of Americans read no books last year, according to an AP-Ipsos poll just out. The media immediately reported that the nations literacy is in free fall.
Every time there’s a literacy crisis, and they come about once a decade, the usual suspects get the blame. Movies, comic books, TV, rock 'n' roll, and now the Internet have all been faulted for this perceived decline in reading, along with permissive parenting, overcrowded schools, and illegal immigration.
Evidence of the national aversion to reading is all around us. Book sales have been flat for several years. A 2004 study reported that only 57% of American adults had read a book in 2002. The 1983 report "A Nation at Risk" lamented the national reading decline, as did the 1955 best-seller Why Johnny Can’t Read, which blamed reading teachers for the reading slump.
Finding a solution to the latest reading crisis won’t be easy. When the economy tanks, the Fed increases the money supply to stimulate spending, as it did just last week when it attempted to reverse the panicky downturn in the stock market.
But there’s no invisible hand steering the nation’s literacy. Even the heroic efforts of J. K. Rowling, the literary Alan Greenspan who flooded the market this summer with more than 12 million copies of Harry Potter 7.0, hasn’t reversed the decline in literacy rates. Yes, people read the Potter series, but a July report by the National Endowment for the Arts shows that most of them don't go on to read other books.
And yet, Americans do read. Maybe we don't all read books as much as the NEA would like, but we all go through life surrounded by the printed word, and few of us have the will power to resist reading it.
We drive our cars through gauntlets of signs telling us where we are, how to get where we’re going, and what to buy when we get there. And when we get out of the car, we see that paper, paper with words on it, paper that someone has read, litters our sidewalks.
Our buildings are decorated with signage, not all of it advertising. All sorts of ordinary objects have words on them, too, and many are literally bathed in text. There are eighty-one words engraved on the dollar bill in my wallet and the soft drink can on my desk has over 120 words on it, many of them in very small print. Who would buy a box of cereal if the package wasn’t covered with words?
There are even words on our T-shirts, and sometimes on our pants. Sure, it’s impolite to stare, yet fashion compels us to read one another's bodies like a book.
Television, the presumed enemy of literacy, is full of reading matter, not just the CNN crawl or Stephen Colbert’s nightly wørd, but also the text that inevitably accompanies the inevitable ads. And the Internet, which despite all its graphics is a text-based medium, has brought us not just information, but information overload. Wikipedia, the user-generated online encyclopedia, now has close to 2 million articles. Far from hurting literacy, the digital age means that more of us are reading more – and writing more – than ever before.
So before we wring our hands in despair as we read in our online newspapers the latest statistics on how few books are being read and how few newspapers are getting sold, maybe we need to recalibrate what counts as reading and writing.
While the books may not be flying off the shelves at Borders, our bookstores are full of customers. Many of them, not finding what they want on the shelves, are sitting in the café, looking for a better price at Amazon or surfing the Internet for information about the literacy crisis. Case in point: my Google search for “literacy crisis” just returned more than 27,000 hits in under 0.10 seconds – that's more text than I can hope to read before my latte gets cold.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Pres. George Bush, who should have read his National Security Briefings more attentively, holds a copy of "The Pet Goat" while observing a 2nd-grade reading lesson at the Emma E. Booker School in Sarasota, Florida.