This (therefore) will not have been a book. While the form of the “book” is now going through a period of general upheaval, and while that form now appears less natural, and its history less transparent, than ever, and while one cannot tamper with it without disturbing everything else, the book form alone can no longer settle—here for example—the case of those writing processes which, in practically questioning that form, must also dismantle it.
Jacques Derrida, (trans. by Barbara Johnson), Dissemination, 3.
The Decline of
One morning late in 2007, my wife found me in my office absorbed in reading Caleb Crain’s “Twilight of the Books” in The New Yorker online, as well as some of the research referenced there. (Crain's blog Steamboats are Ruining Everything was awarded "Best Writer" by the History News Network's Cliopatria Awards.) In particular, I was somewhat discomfited by the National Endowment for the Arts report Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America (2004) and To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence (2007). Among the eye-openers from these reports, Crain mentions the disturbing factoid that the number of adults in the United States who are proficient readers has declined from 15% to 13%—I had not imagined it was under 50%.
According to the Department of Education, between 1992 and 2003 the average adult’s skill in reading prose slipped one point on a five-hundred-point scale, and the proportion who were proficient—capable of such tasks as “comparing viewpoints in two editorials”—declined from fifteen per cent to thirteen.The source:
Crain, “Twilight of the Books”
A statistically significant change does arise, however, in the percentage of American adults who read at the Proficient level. They slipped from 15% in 1992 to 13% in 2003.
To Read or Not to Read, 64
The trend is worse.
The deterioration in reading rates and proficiency of 17-year-olds makes possible a scenario where, according to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 5% of high school graduates are Proficient readersReading and Civic Participation
To Read or Not to Read, 61.
Among the concerns expressed in the study is observation of a correlation between reading proficiency and civic participation. Fewer deficient readers vote.
84% of Proficient readers voted in the 2000 presidential election, compared with 53% of Below-Basic readers.The authors of the report express concern that those who do not read do not vote, which reflects the sort of notion of democratic participation we might expect from a government agency. I’m more concerned that a substantial percentage of the 87% who are not proficient readers do vote. I’d rather not have folks incapable of “comparing viewpoints in two editorials” choosing my representative in Congress or the next President.
To Read or Not to Read, 19.
My Lord Sebastian,
The truth you speak doth lack some gentleness,
And time to speak it in. You rub the sore
When you should bring the plaster.
Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 2, Scene 1.
My wife gets upset when I say things like that, so we turned the conversation in another direction.
(edit: she might have quoted Shakespeare--see comments below)
It is well known in my household that I buy books more often than I read them, that I start books that I never finish, and that I spent more time reading blogs and the like than books. In 2008, I am challenged to finish the books that I start.
This morning I finished Gonzo. Over the past few years, I’ve occasionally read parts of Hunter Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales From a Strange Time (1979). Perhaps now I’ll try to get through it cover to cover. If I start it anew, I can count it in the challenge.