Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

media. music. feminism. food. city-dwelling. story-telling. and other things.

On Bemoaning Declining Reading Rates

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I’m reviewing Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation (a 2008 hardcover bestseller, recently released in paperback) for the AARP Magazine. The book’s subtitle is the oh-so-subtle “How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).” I’m a few chapters in, and so far Bauerlein has spent a significant amount of time exploring declining book reading rates. Though Bauerlein concentrates on this phenomenon amongst the under-24 set, they’re actually down amongst all age levels. Which has me pondering: is reading actually, if we really think about it, on the whole, really, a social good?

I say this as someone who would love if everyone read more. I’ve always, since very early childhood, been an avid reader. I like everything about books. I like the content of books. I like the idea of books. I like bookstores. I like for no apparent reason carting around my entire library with me every time I (frequently) move, and gazing at my abundant bookshelves. I like peeking at other people’s bookshelves at parties. I like bonding over talking about favorite books. I like the romance of the passionate and troubled novelist. All the attendant cultural narrative that “authors” conjure up. I want books to succeed because I still think I’m going to write novels someday, and I’d like them to sell. I want books to succeed because I want writers in general to succeed, and small, independent bookstore owners, and publishing houses, and book review sections of newspapers, too. I want books to succeed because what else would I give people as gifts?

And I do believe that book reading can confer all types of benefits to readers, depending on what one’s reading. It can introduce new ideas, help people grasp complex topics that can’t be done right by a newspaper article or the evening news. It can increase your vocabulary. Reading can, as so many studies seem to like to point out, “increase reading comprehension” (shocking!).

But is reading, just in general—reading, as Bauerlein puts it, “Henry James or James Patterson, Sue Grafton or Sylvia Plath,” graphic novels or Gone With the Wind or Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl or the Federalist Papers or A Clockwork Orange or Bill O’Reilly or Dewey the freaking Library Cat—book reading, in an of itself, without any discrimination towards what one’s reading, as these reading rate surveys measure it, really so good? There’s a certain threshold, I think—certainly, if nobody’s reading, that be something else entirely. But is a decline from 59 percent of people reading for fun to 42 percent over the past two decades really detrimental to our public intellect and culture? Is reading for fun really so much more worthwhile of a leisure activity pasttime than watching television or going to kids sporting events or drinking with friends or posting videos to YouTube or playing video games or knitting? I’m genuinely not sure what I think. How about you?

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Written by Elizabeth

June 20, 2009 at 6:55 pm

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