Bookstores are my favorite places to hang-out. Before bookstores became popular, I grew-up in a library. The neighborhood library was three blocks from my Kansas City, Missouri, home. In the summertime, I would spend days and weekends in the library, sitting at a table, reading reference books. Science, mostly, but pretty much any kind of reference book I could get my hands on. Electronics, planets, chemistry, geography; I’d pick out a few and sit and read them until dinnertime.
As an adult, I like sitting in my neighborhood bookstore, surrounded by books, drinking coffee and reading or grading papers. I try not to eavesdrop on conversations. Usually, ignoring the chatter around is easy. People typically treat bookstores like libraries, talking in quiet, hushed tones. Once in a while, a conversation fragment worms its way to me. Like this one:
“I don’t like to read.”
To me, when someone says, “I don’t like to read,” they might as well keep going, “I don’t like cake, either. Or, sex. Or, money. I don’t like movies much, too.” I don’t understand the notion of not liking to read. I realize I am in the minority.
Several studies have been conducted on America’s desire to not read, perhaps the most robust was the 2007 NEA “To Read or Not To Read” research report. Americans simply do not value reading as much as they value other activities. This concerns me.
Reading is fundamental to a free, fair, and open society, and a participatory democracy. While I disparage news media, reading multiple sources of news media I do encourage as doing so increases exposure to many points-of-view. By scrutinizing multiple sources, we increase the likelihood of discovering the actual path of truth, rather than the path a single news source would have us take.
Reading encourages the reader to think, to imagine, to process information, to theorize, and speculate.
Reading assists one in better articulating our own thoughts by exposing one to the ideas of others, the acquired knowledge of others, and helps us develop our own appropriate models for engaging in conversation and discourse.
When I hear that someone doesn’t like to read, I feel like society is weaker, that our society is undermined by a sole person. However, if this were simply the case of one person I would not care much. But, this is not a case of a single person not wanting to read.
No, this is a case where a country of 300,000,000+ people is losing an interest in reading. Losing an interest in reading is a downward spiral. A loss of interest in reading carries over into a loss of critical thinking skills, a loss of knowledge, a loss of education.
Kids are spending less time reading. According to the NEA study, more children 13 & 17 are reading less. Fewer children are reading for fun. Fewer reading assignments are given in college.
Adults are mirroring the same trend in children. Almost 50% of adults 18-24 do not read for pleasure. The number of adults 18-44 who read for pleasure fell 7% between 1992 – 2002.
How can Americans understand governance if they do not read and try to engage their brains? How can Americans understand the finer points of government, comprehend mortgage documents, retirement documents, investments if they undermine their critical thinking skills by eliminating reading from necessary Life skills?
How can Americans understand the laws, statues, or bills in front of Congress, or bills passed by Congress without having critical thinking skills developed from reading?
Often I have heard students say, “There is too much material. This book is boring and too hard to read. Just tell me what I need to know.”
“I did tell you what you need to know. I gave you the reading assignment. It’s called, “Chapter 9.” That is what you need to know. Not liking the book is not my problem, that you find the book boring is not my problem. Your assignment is to study Chapter 9, and be prepared to discuss themes, topics, and details contain therein. Now, your choice is to either follow my directions, or not. If you choose “not” the results probably will not work in your favor.”
By reading, we can educate ourselves more completely about any detail, topic, concern, or issue. We do not need to rely on the likes of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Keith Obermann, or Rachel Maddow to distill copious amounts of information down to a 10-second sound bite.
The world we reside upon today is a more complex world than the one that existed in the 1950s. Or, the 1970s. As much as some would like, we cannot apply the old paradigms of Cold War, of Soviet-bloc, of Domino Theory to a world that is literally and figuratively networked by blood and electrons. This new era of Globalization is covering the world like southern kudzu.
If Americans want to dumb themselves down, so be it. Nothing I can do about it. That’s not entirely true. I stand in front of people each week and proselytize about global changes, global cultures, about ideas, theories and notions. I tell stories, show newspaper articles & videos that illustrate past, present, and future change, display web sites that can be used to study regional, national, and global trends.
While I see ripples of growing ignorance and lackadaisical attitudes towards education, those ripples merely foreshadow the waves of indifference and the tsunami of arrogance and active belligerence that is only now erupting from U.S. political leaders.
If Americans want to dumb themselves down, then we can no longer expect to be Number 1 at anything. We can expect China, Germany, India, Brazil, Turkey, even Iran to identify voids opening in the wake of America’s intellectual decline and then seek to fill those voids.
Rather than setting the trends, anticipating the future, planning ahead, and being the culture peoples around the world look to for leadership, for guidance, for wisdom, by not reading, and suffering the subsequent loss of intellect, the United States will simply slide into mediocrity.
If you have a solution to any of this, I’d like to know. But, don’t give me much to read. Just tell me what I need know.