Back in December I promised I'd post on Caleb Crain's New Yorker piece "Twilight of the Books," a response to the NEA's "To Read or Not to Read" report issued in November. Better late than never, I suppose.
Crain summarizes much of the recent empirical data about the evident trends in reading, which show that Americans (and others) may be "losing not just to will to read, but even the ability." Of this evidence, he concludes "There’s no reason to think that reading and writing are about to become extinct, but some sociologists speculate that reading books for pleasure will one day be the province of a special 'reading class,' much as it was before the arrival of mass literacy, in the second half of the nineteenth century. They warn that it probably won’t regain the prestige of exclusivity; it may just become 'an increasingly arcane hobby.' Such a shift would change the texture of society. If one person decides to watch 'The Sopranos' rather than to read Leonardo Sciascia’s novella To Each His Own, the culture goes on largely as before—both viewer and reader are entertaining themselves while learning something about the Mafia in the bargain. But if, over time, many people choose television over books, then a nation’s conversation with itself is likely to change. A reader learns about the world and imagines it differently from the way a viewer does; according to some experimental psychologists, a reader and a viewer even think differently. If the eclipse of reading continues, the alteration is likely to matter in ways that aren’t foreseeable."
Crain then discusses Maryanne Wolf's recent book Proust and the Squid, which treats the biological and physiological history of reading as a human function. Wolf's book provides a handy springboard, allowing Crain to explore the differences between illiterate and literate cultures (it is only in the latter, researchers have found that "the past's inconsistencies have to be accounted for, a process that encourages skepticism and forces history to diverge from myth"). Wolf argues that as reading proficiency increases, brain chemistry changes and allows the reader to process what's being read more quickly and efficiently, making it possible to "integrate more of her own thoughts and feelings into her experience." Crain suggests that reading "makes you smarter because it leaves more of your brain alone," putting the lie to a theory set forth by Steven Johnson that high-intensity video games offer a "superior cognitive workout" to reading.
Finally, "Twilight" makes the excellent and not-made-enough point that it is much easier to expose oneself to different viewpoints through reading than on the television. I confess I hadn't thought about this much, but at least in my case this is certainly true: I'd much rather read an op/ed piece or article by someone I disagree with strongly than watch them spout the same lines on t.v.
If people rely less on reading, Crain writes, "Self-doubt, therefore, becomes less likely. In fact, doubt of any kind is rarer. ... After all, there is no one looking back at the television viewer. He is alone, though he, and his brain, may be too distracted to notice it. The reader is also alone, but the N.E.A. reports that readers are more likely than non-readers to play sports, exercise, visit art museums, attend theatre, paint, go to music events, take photographs, and volunteer. Proficient readers are also more likely to vote. Perhaps readers venture so readily outside because what they experience in solitude gives them confidence. Perhaps reading is a prototype of independence. No matter how much one worships an author, Proust wrote, 'all he can do is give us desires.' Reading somehow gives us the boldness to act on them. Such a habit might be quite dangerous for a democracy to lose."
Thankfully for us, Crain has provided much additional commentary and background on the research he used for his articles in some posts over at Steamboats Are Ruining Everything. He notes "If all goes according to plan, the result will be a series of blog posts that add up to an annotated bibliography about reading habits and literacy in America." It is that, and more. I highly recommend these posts to anyone interested in these matters; we all owe Caleb a great debt for the work he's done on this. The posts are:
Notebook: 'Twilight of the Books
Are Americans Reading Less?
Are Americans Spending Less on Reading?
Is Literacy Declining?
Does Television Impair Intellect?
Does Internet Use Compromise Reading Time?
Is Reading Online Worse Than Reading Print?
You can also hear Caleb discuss his article and the data here (mp3) in an interview on WNYC's Brian Lehrer show.