Reading is becoming a lost art

For the last hour or so, the blinking cursor on the blank document on my computer screen has been taunting me:

Go ahead. Type. Write that cunning column about how weird it is for the National Endowment for the Arts to report a crisis in American reading in the same week that is selling out of “Kindles,” those new $399 electronic book gadgets.

Shut up, Blinky. I am going to write it. I’m just pondering. We writers like to ponder.

Ponder this: Who’s going to read it?

The NEA report quoted a Bureau of Labor Statistics figure that says the average American, age 15 and up, spends three hours and six minutes every weekend day watching television and only 26 minutes reading. You really think they’re going to waste any of those 26 minutes on reading you?

They might. Newspaper readers are well above average, and readers of the opinion page are way above average. They’re keenly interested in the news and cogent, pungent commentary. They like to read, period. They’re the kind of people who are buying all those Kindles.

Fine. But consider this: Once they’ve laid out $399 for a machine that can hold the text of up to 200 books, and once they’ve spent $9.95 to download the latest Amazon best-seller, they’ve got too much invested to waste any of their reading time on your stupid column.

Ah, Blinky. You don’t understand. Readers get hooked early. They like the tactile feel of paper, the smell of ink, the marvelous moment when the book or newspaper disappears and they are hooked directly into the story, the characters, the narrative. It’s like a Vulcan mind meld.

See, there you are, making a television reference – and to a TV show that went off the air 38 years ago. What about the future? What about young people? That NEA report says that people under 34 years old read for no more than 11 minutes a day. You really think they’re going to devote three or four of those minutes to you?

They might. They might want to get a good job when they grow up. The NEA says good readers are two or three times more likely than poor readers to get jobs making $1,950 a week or more. It says employers are desperate for good readers. Young people today know that, which is why they’re flocking to read my column.


They can read it online, too. They can read it on their iPhones or other gadgets. You see them at sock hops or hanging around the Malt Shoppe, reading my column, talking about world affairs.

You really don’t have a clue, do you?

You mean they’re not?

And they’re not reading books, either. That NEA survey you’re so concerned about quotes a 2002 study that more than 40 percent of Americans under the age of 34 hadn’t read a book in the last year, outside of stuff they had to read for school or work. In fact, 43 percent of all Americans hadn’t read a single book for pleasure in the previous year.

What about Henry Potter?

That’s Harry Potter. Henry Potter is the guy in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which again just goes to prove how out of it you really are.

Whatever. There are 122 million Harry Potter books in print in the United States. They must have made a huge difference.

Not really. Reading habits among kids are still dropping as fast as they were before Harry Potter came along.

Maybe machines like the Kindle will change all that. Maybe it’s not reading that kids hate. Maybe it’s paper. Maybe they hate the idea of stacks of books and newspapers cluttering up their home. Maybe if there’s a machine involved, they’ll become big readers again. Kindles are sold out until mid-December. There’s nothing Americans like better than buying expensive machines they don’t actually need.

So if you give them $399, they’ll buy a Kindle and not an X-Box? No, it’s definitely reading they don’t like. Reading is solitary, not social. Reading is contemplative and challenging. Today, people want action and distraction. It’s why more people play slot machines than poker. It’s why they added Diamond-Vision screens and sausage races to baseball games. People want to interact. It’s why, with a Kindle, writers may be able to let readers see a work in progress and get their reactions.

That’ll make for some great literature: “Dear Mr. Tolstoy: I don’t like the part in ‘War and Peace’ where Karataev gets shot by the French. I think you should change it.”

Hey, it’s better than starving.

Go away, Blinky. I have a column to finish.