These days it is pretty much cliché to write about the decline of literacy. However, while there are counterpoints to the argument, the cliché exists because literacy really is on the decline, and has been for some time- though the extent of that decline and its implications are still open to debate. Likewise, it is cliché to talk about the debilitating impact of television on literacy, and intelligence overall: but here also the cliché is grounded in reality. Caleb Crain examines the much-vaunted decline of literacy, and, most interestingly, discusses how literate reading influences the way we think and act, in his article in the New Yorker, Twilight of the Books. The article turns quite depressing at the end, as Crain contemplates a post-literate world:
And he may have even more trouble than Luria’s peasants in seeing himself as others do. After all, there is no one looking back at the television viewer. He is alone, though he, and his brain, may be too distracted to notice it. The reader is also alone, but the N.E.A. reports that readers are more likely than non-readers to play sports, exercise, visit art museums, attend theatre, paint, go to music events, take photographs, and volunteer. Proficient readers are also more likely to vote. Perhaps readers venture so readily outside because what they experience in solitude gives them confidence. Perhaps reading is a prototype of independence. No matter how much one worships an author, Proust wrote, “all he can do is give us desires.” Reading somehow gives us the boldness to act on them. Such a habit might be quite dangerous for a democracy to lose.
I might add that a loss in literacy is not only dangerous for democracy- it is dangerous and destructive for human culture as a whole. Reading is an engaging activity: it demands that the reader employ his imagination and rational thought in constructing the images given by the words and arranging the arguments presented. The literary world is one open to the reader for examination, for digestion, for expansion. Good literature will not only engage the reader in the text itself: rather, it will compel the reader to act on her own. Good literature inspires, in the true meaning of the word, further creative activity as the reader goes out from the text with new visions, ideas, and a sharpened intellect.
Craig mentions the possibility that the internet will continue literacy, but notes that the increasing preponderance of streaming media- a la YouTube- is seriously undercutting that possibility. Besides this, while I obviously enjoy the internet and think it a valuable asset for a literate culture, it simply is not a replacement for more traditional forms of literacy. Serious digestion of involved arguments and ideas is considerably more difficult via a computer- if only because reading a screen is- to me anyway- much more wearisome than reading printed text. But more importantly, the ease of access that the internet entails also means that the reader’s attention is more easily distracted, and less able to focus upon a single narrative structure or protracted line of argument. The internet serves many useful purposes, but I doubt that even in its text-based, “traditional” form it can replace the written, published text.
At any rate, I plan on being a part of the “reading caste” for as long as my eyes can make out the text on the page, and I will continue to purchase books- including those ridiculously long nineteenth century British novels- as long as they’re sold. Which reminds me of one advantage of being a reader: books- quite good books- can still be had very cheaply, much more cheaply than cable or satellite or a ticket to the cinema- an advantage of increasing importance in an economy of ever-rising prices. Reading is a cheap hobby, but the payoff (excuse my elementary-school teacher cliché-ness!) is immense.