The recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts that reveals a precipitous drop in book reading among Americans has many wringing their hands, but the trend is nothing new. We're a nation of people who can, but choose not to, read for pleasure.
But that's just part of the problem. Among those who reported reading a book in the past year, how many really did so and how many thumbed through it or just got partway? How many books are on nightstands gathering dust or being flipped through while Letterman rattles off his Top Ten? How many people will really read, say, the Sept. 11 commission's just-published final report?
Even many of us who say we read books actually just skip through them, looking here and there for bits of information. In fact, we've become something of a skimming culture.
It's not all our fault. Everything is geared to allowing us to give only partial attention toward what is in front of us. There's a headline ticker at the bottom of my newscast. Three or more task windows are open on my computer screen at any time. I drive with a cellular headset in case I get a call. Look around at a stoplight sometime and count the number of LCD panels flipped down from the headliners of other cars -- they're watching TV while driving!
Microsoft, a company that has become one of the world's largest by knowing how people go about digesting information, has coined a phrase for the way we take in the world around us: "continuous partial attention." Their products are all geared to be usable under such circumstances.
There are those who worry about the fate of society in a nation of willful nonreaders, but I worry about the fate of democracy. The consequences of not paying attention are wide-ranging. In corporate America, it's become a problem that workers do not fully read the key corporate documents their employers put out for their benefit. Think "Enron ethics code" here. And in public life, details get missed. Wrong impressions get formed. Headlines substitute for reading past Page One.
Total ignorance, one might argue, is in fact better for democracy than a partial ignorance that masquerades as knowledge. At least the totally ignorant sense their limitations. Skimmers, on the other hand, may well occupy the ranks of power and feel a mastery of the information around them. But in truth they have faulty intelligence. After listening to the "executive summary" on their drive in to work or on the treadmill, they have a false confidence that they know what they need to know.
Little wonder that there is a call to declassify the one-page summary of Iraq intelligence prepared for President Bush before the invasion. (The sheet reportedly omits qualifiers and nuance, creating a much starker sense of the world situation.) The administration's refusal to release the brief document is based on the grounds that it's irrelevant because the full National Intelligence Estimate was released and, according to one official, "we expect people to read beyond one page." But most people at home know that they themselves might have read only the cover sheet. They wonder: Did the president or his advisers flip past it, or did they stop after glancing at the Cliff's Notes?
Indeed, even the president's chief opponent, Sen. John Kerry, acknowledges he did not read the admittedly lengthy NIE before voting on whether to grant authority to invade Iraq. Skimming, clearly, is a nonpartisan issue.
Sadly, sometimes it seems we are forced to wonder whether any of our leaders ever read their briefing materials at all. Before we blame them, though, let us look at our own habits, and ask whether we are really reading what is before us.
-- Brad Rourke is a consultant who works with nonprofit organizations and foundations.