Is reading in America a dying pursuit? The NEA seems to think so, after doing an in-depth study of the situation (read entire report at www.nea.gov.)
“Reading at Risk” surveyed over 17,000 adults (age 18 or older), asking them about their reading habits in regards to novels, short stories, poetry and/or plays. The focus was mainly on literary reading trends for “Reading at Risk.”
In a separate study entitled “To Read or Not to Read,” statistics were gathered from more than 40 national studies on reading habits of children, teenagers and adults. This study dealt with all kinds of reading: books, magazines, newspapers, online reading.
According to the NEA, less than 1/3 of 13-year-olds read for pleasure every day, a 14% decline from 20 years ago. The percentage of 17-year-old non-readers doubled in that same twenty-year span. If you’re an American between the ages of 15 and 24, you spend 2 hours a day watching television, but only 7 minutes a day reading, according to this study.
Timothy Shanahan, a professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago and past president of the International Reading Association says that many young people say they don’t read because it’s lonely. When they are online or text messaging, they feel involved with others, but they do not feel this sense of community when reading by themselves. “What kids like about IM-ing and text messaging is that it’s playful and interactive and connects then to their friends,’ said Shanahan in an article entitled “The Grim Reader” in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers. (pp.10-13).
Shanahan continued, “The Harry Potter books were popular not mainly because of this wonderful story and the language, I don’t think, but because it was this huge phenomenon that allowed young people to participate in it. What was exciting was reading what your friends were reading and talking to them about it. People of all ages are hungry for that kind of community.”
The article continues discussing the need for community and how the Internet seems to fill that void for many disconnected individuals. It is not difficult to see that reading a book, as opposed to going online, might suffer, if the desire for feedback and community, lacking in today’s anonymous society is satisfied most by the online substitute for actual human interaction.
One only has to go online to any blog to see the decline and fall of the language. A young friend with degrees in computer science tells me, “They didn’t teach us that stuff,” when I ask him about his spelling, grammar, syntax mistakes. By “they” he means, of course, his English teachers, and I have heard this refrain from my students at six colleges in my day. I “taught this stuff” for almost 20 years to 12 and 13-year-olds. In my classes, we labored long and hard over grammar, spelling, syntax, subject/verb agreement, etc.
When and why did the attempts to teach our native tongue—complete with grammar, syntax, etc.— stop? This very bright young man now finds himself completely qualified to do the technical side of blogging, but handicapped by a lack of proficiency in those areas.
I remember that, when I began teaching at the junior high school level in 1969, my students routinely wrote short stories, which were then taken to the high school Creative Writing class(es) for judging. By the time I left my public school classroom in 1985, the students coming up from the grades below no longer could write a coherent sentence, let alone a paragraph, let alone a story. We had to discontinue the Short Story contest, and the Creative Writing class at the high school level similarly withered and died. In the college classroom as recently as 2004, the students had great difficulty writing, unless they were older students coming back to the community college to retrain.
Of some concern to me was the survey that was printed with the article, a survey of 75 readers who voted on the Best Award-winning novel of 2007. Sixty-two % of those who responded believed that Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road” deserved that distinction, which it well may, based on its plot-driven story and theme.
The problem is that Cormac McCarthy (who was shown often in the crowd at the Oscars as the awards for “No Country for Old Men” rolled in) doesn’t much believe in the use of traditional punctuation, particularly apostrophes. I realize that no less a luminary than e.e. cummings similarly refused to capitalize, but picking “The Road” only reinforces our drift, as a nation, towards anarchy, defined in this case as a failure to even attempt to follow the rules of grammar and punctuation.
Sometimes, we veteran English teachers feel like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. We know that the dike will give way if we remove our finger, but what are we to do? Language is constantly changing, yes. I am much more likely to use a sentence fragment in a story I write, today, than I would have been twenty years ago. Language is not set in stone and there are new words and terms and techno-speak being added every day.
But some appreciation for following the rules handed down by great writers seems wise. Poet e.e. cummings was an exception that proved the rule, not a groundbreaker who made new ones. It will be interesting to assess Cormac McCarthy’s effect on language from the perspective of a decade hence.