By GERALD WARFIELD
Are people reading less, and does it matter? The National Endowment for the Arts said that readership among young people in 2002 had fallen 20 percent since 1982 causing great concern among educators. But in 2008 they reported that readership among the same group had risen a healthy 21 percent. Much of the credit for this good news is given to J.K. Rowling whose final book in the Harry Potter series, published in 2004, sold five million copies within 24 hours of appearing in print. Such enthusiasm for fiction hasn’t been seen since Charles Dickens' time when, according to Wikipedia, masses of illiterate poor chipped in half pennies to have the monthly installment of novels like "David Copperfield" and "Oliver Twist" read to them as they came off the press. Rowling’s contribution to reading, of course, has not been without its rewards. Her personal fortune is now estimated at 910 million dollars. Significantly, one year after Deathly Hallows was published the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer appeared, and she hasn’t done badly, either. Meyer’s annual earnings exceed 50 million dollars.
Despite the brilliant performance of superstar authors, the BBC reports this year that reading among children continues to decline as their lives become more crowded with other activities. This corresponds to my own observation that reading is not thriving in rural areas, and that the enthusiasm for books displayed by some young people frequently does not carry over into adulthood.
If reading is on the skids, then we might wonder what will be lost? Neil Postman, in his book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death,” discusses the media and entertainment options that distract children from reading. He warns that without reading, a mode of thinking is lost: a sense of logic and the ability to spot contradictions and falsehoods.
This has the most troubling implications in non-fiction and current events. We’re more likely to accept, without thinking, what we hear on TV.
In the LA Times, another commentator, Mitchell Stephens, speaks to the benefit of reading explaining that with the written word “the correspondences, connections or contradictions among various statements can be carefully examined.” In practical terms, that means that a deeper understanding of issues can be achieved from newspapers and magazines than from news broadcasts that take place in “real time” and do not allow for reflection.
In my opinion, people simply think better within a reading context. Again, according to Stephens, “Controversial subjects are losing the seriousness and intellectual content print gave them as they are transformed into ‘show business’ to meet the needs of electronic media.” Nowhere has his been more dramatically demonstrated than in the rhetoric of the recent presidential election and the gun control debate. To cut to the chase, if you really want to learn about a subject – read about it.