Reading… Again

In the headlines recently have been more stories about how little Americans read. According to an AP-IPSOS study, twenty-seven percent of all adults in the United States have not read a book in the past year. The remainder — those who claimed to have read at least one book over the past 12 months — averaged seven books. According to another earlier Gallup poll, some 57% of Americans had not read a book [besides the Bible] in the previous year.

I’m not troubled by the fact that there are those who haven’t read any books. In any society, there are people who just aren’t readers. But I am troubled by the numbers and the way they fall out.

I wasn’t surprised that the readers of fantasy and science fiction comprised less than 5% of all readers. Nor was I exactly astounded to discover that, over the past 15 years, book-reading percentages are down for the 18-25 age group, from close to 90% to less than 60%. More than half of all frequent readers are over age 50, and more than 55% of all books are purchased by those over 50. The highest concentrations of readers are among those who are older and college-educated.

Yet book sales are up. Exactly what does that mean? I’m reminded of a study done for the National Opera Association several years ago. Sales of opera tickets were up, and everyone was pleased until they looked closely at the numbers — which showed that while the number of tickets sold was up, the actual number of patrons was down, and that the average age of patrons was increasing.

The statistics on book reading seem to be following a similar pattern, and for years now, various pundits and social scientists have been worried that Americans are losing their reading skills – and that a smaller and smaller percentage of Americans are highly literate. Yet the U.S. economy still dominates the world stage, and, despite the difficulties in the Middle East, our military machine has no equal — even in situations where we have to deal with sectarian civil wars. So what’s the problem?

The problem is information-processing. To make intelligent decisions, human beings need information. They can obtain that information in one of three ways: direct personal experience, listening and watching, or reading. The first two means, while often necessary, share one basic problem. They’re slow, and the information flow is very restricted. Even slow readers generally can process written information several times faster than auditory information, and they can always refer back to it. That’s one reason, often forgotten, why stable civilizations did not emerge until written languages developed. The invention of the printing press in Europe provided a tremendous informational advantage to western European civilization, which, until that time, had lagged behind the Asiatic cultures, particularly the Chinese. The Chinese culture effectively used an elaborate written pictograph-based character language to restrict social and political access to a comparatively minute fraction of the population, which resulted in a tremendous information gap once western cultures combined alphabet-based languages with widespread use of the printing press and the comparative decline of Chinese power and influence.

In its own fashion, an auditory-visual media culture limits and shapes information flow, first by selectively choosing what information to promulgate and second by tying that information to visual images. Now, immediately, someone will question this by pointing out the multiplicity of media outlets and the different media channels. There are hundreds of cable and satellite channels; there are thousands of blogs and web-sites. How can I claim this is limiting? First, on every single cable and satellite station, the information flow is effectively limited to less than one hundred words a minute. That’s the top rate at which most people can process auditory input, and most facts have to be put in words. Second, while the internet remains primarily text-based, the vast majority of internet users is limited to what best might be called “common access” — and that is extremely limited in factual content. If you don’t believe me, just search for Mozart or Einstein or anything. In most cases, you’ll find hundreds, if not thousands, of references, but… you’ll seldom find anything beyond a certain “depth.” Oh… I’m not saying it’s not there. If you’re a university student, or a professor using a university library computer, or if you want to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in access fees, or if you live in a very affluent community with integrated library data-bases, you can find a great deal… but Joe or Josephine on the home computer can’t.

In reality, the vast majority of internet users circulate and re-circulate a relatively small working data-base… and one which contains far less “real” information than a very small college library, if that.

Then add to that the fact that close to 60% of college graduates, according to a Department of Education study published last year, are at best marginally literate in dealing with and understanding information written at the level of a standard newspaper editorial.

These lead to the next question. Why does all this matter?

I’d submit that it matters because we live in the most highly technical age in human history, where no issue is simple, and where understanding and in-depth knowledge are the keys to our future… and possibly whether we as a species have a future. Yet the proliferation of an auditory-visual media culture is effectively limiting the ability of people, particularly the younger generations, to obtain and process the amount of information necessary for good decision-making and replacing those necessary reading and researching skills with simplistic audio-visuals and an extremely limited common informational data-base. This makes for a great profit for all the media outlets, but not necessarily for a well-informed citizenry.

Like it or not, there isn’t a substitute for reading widely and well, not if we wish what we have developed as western semi-representative governments to continue. Oh… some form of “civilization” will continue, but it’s far more likely to resemble a westernized version of the pre-printing press Chinese society, with a comparatively small elite trained in true thought and mental information processing, all the while with the media and communications systems types enabling “sound-byte” politicians with simplistic slogans while trumpeting freedom of expression and banking greater and greater profits.

Come to think of it… I wrote a story about that. It’s entitled “News Clips from the NYC Ruins.” If you didn’t read it in The Leading Edge, you can read it in my forthcoming story collection — Viewpoints Critical — out next March from Tor.