08 January 2008

Twilight of the Books

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 Reading
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.
Crain, “Twilight of the Books”
The source:
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 readers
To Read or Not to Read, 61.

Reading and Civic Participation

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.
To Read or Not to Read, 19.
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.
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)

Reading Challenge for 2008

We resolved to read more together in 2008. We challenged each other to track our reading, and to keep up with one another in number of books and total pages. We count only books that we start and finish in the calendar year. There was a mutual recognition that I seem to read more, so she was permitted a two-day head start, while I cannot count anything begun prior to dinner on December 31. I was encouraged to quickly finish Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, which had been given to me on December 25 by one of my sons, and I was discouraged from beginning until late on the last day of the year Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico, which I had purchased recently. Hugh Thomas, Conquest counts in the challenge, but the life of Thompson (434 pages plus Johnny Depp’s “Introduction”) does not. Well, I agreed to the terms, even if we could not agree whether it was a contest between us or a cooperative resolution.

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.


heydave said...

My 16 year old son visited me for the holidays, and I am so very pleased to let all know that I found him on several occasions poking though my personal library. He heartily agreed that "too many books" is no problem.

But on that subject, I'm searching for suggested reading lists that give historical info without pandering to one's political persuasion. I've got my recommended reading list for the civil war; how about the War of 1812 and the American revolution? I plodded through Borders last weekend and came away greatly discouraged with the screening method of seeing who contributed to cover art blurbs. Any suggestions?


doghouse riley said...

Wait, your wife gets upset when you question whether non-proficient readers should be encouraged to vote, or when you quote Shakespeare?

Actual count, just this minute, of books in my queue (at bedside or on the living room ottoman): 21

Number which have actually been started: 16

Number I've previously read: 4

Number I'm within two chapters of finishing: 5

Odds that any particular unread book will wind up being finished: 1 in 6.

James Stripes said...

It's important to remember that "the truth" Sebastian spoke turned out to be false in The Tempest, otherwise she might have been quoting Shakespeare at me: sometimes telling the truth is mean, and she gets upset when I seem mean.

The world may be crawling with illiterates (HST called them the "New Dumb"--see today's blog entry) that vote the way they're told by FOX or CNN, but kindness avoids highlighting their capacities for reasoned judgment.

James Stripes said...


I'm still thinking about your question. You might note from "Two Theses" along the sidebar that I'm not usually in search of apolitical histories. Indeed, I rather doubt any historians escape their own biases.

But you use the word pandering...

The connotations of that term certainly embrace broadly sweeping histories like Zinn, A People's History and Schweikart and Allen, A Patriot's History, as well as quite a few monographs. Nevertheless, bias sometimes drives a work more strongly, sometimes less so.

I can say that I'm currently immersed in other aspects of American history, but I anticipate that I will become immersed in the early national period (including the War of 1812) sometime later this year. Check back then, and I might have some recommendations.

In the meantime, you might check out

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