The latest NEA report arrives like a volley of cannon fire. Young people read very little! Almost half of them never read books for pleasure! A surprisingly high percentage of American adults couldn't read a book for pleasure, even if they wanted to!
Perhaps that last fact requires some clarification. Most American adults are ''literate'' in the sense they can read ''the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy brown dog,'' and they know what most English words mean. They are not illiterate. However, only about a third of US college graduates are ''proficiently literate''- this becomes even more shocking when you understand that prose proficiency is defined as the ability to read a newspaper article and understand what it says. About 70 percent of American adults could not read a ten-page article and summarize it for you. In other words, they simply cannot read at an adult level.
These findings don't really bring the shock of the new for those of us who teach in the United States- we've seen all this before. I would actually be surprised if as many as 30 percent of the college freshmen that I see can read an article and summarize it.
It took me some time to understand the depth of the problem. My first semesters were often spent becoming quietly annoyed with my students for their ''refusal to read''. We would assign them 3-5 page articles to read, and have them answer a fairly easy question on the readings, often simply asking what the article said, as homework. Inevitably, very few of their papers would demonstrate any understanding of the readings. If a horse was mentioned in the third paragraph, they thought it was a reading on horses. Sometimes they understood the subject, but thought the writer was making the opposite argument from the one they were actually making. I assumed that none of the students were actually reading the articles, until it finally occurred to me that, perhaps, many of them are just unable to comprehend what they read.
The factory process of American education leaves little room for the necessary interventions that we must make when we realize that young people cannot read in any serious way. Should we hold them back? Should we flunk every college student who lacks reading comprehension? I'm not exaggerating when I say that, were we to flunk out every student we see who is not really prepared to do college-level work, we'd lose at least half of our student body. I would be okay with that, but most university administrators would not. Universities are a cultural institution rooted in the close study of texts and unable to deal with the fact that reading has become vestigial in American culture.
At first, it's easy to brush off the non-readers as otherwise intelligent people who simply lack a taste for the written word. Hell, some people like broccoli and some don't. Eventually, however, you come to understand what a gulf separates readers from non-readers. Having observed them in their natural habitat, it seems to me that non-readers are often confused by spoken arguments as well- they often seem to miss the point. You tell them that you think dog-owners should have to keep their dogs on a leash when walking them, and they respond, ''So you think that dog owners should never be able to take off their dogs' leashes?!'' They tend to be rash and easily annoyed, and their own opinions have an unreflective quality to them. Often, they seem to be repeating other people's opinions with little concern as to the accuracy of their statements. They see every question of life in terms of ''pro'' or ''anti'', and constantly want other people's thoughts to be boiled down to ''yes'' or ''no'' positions. They are indifferent to truth and judge arguments solely by the vehemence with which they are delivered.
In truth, we might not be able to tell if these are the characteristics of non-readers or simply character traits that make active reading impossible. But, certainly, active exposure to literature works against these character traits, diminishing them over time. Certainly, it makes us more thoughtful.
Literature, at its best, is the guide to an inward empire- it cultivates inwardness in its readers and reveals something of the internal, otherwise invisible, states of human subjectivity and consciousness. It fortifies and enlarges an inner life, which is perhaps the reason that totalitarian governments are so often most terrified of poets. The freedom to follow a thought wherever it may lead is the basis of all other freedoms.
Inwardness is the precondition of meaningful action. It is also the precondition, as well as the product, of active reading. Have you ever noticed how few public places you can actually read in? Between the piped-in music, the security guards, the cell-phone conversations, and the barrage of advertising, very few public places, even few libraries, are actually reader-friendly. This sort of environment facilitates binge shopping, but not contemplation. One might suggest this is intentional.
Maybe those of us who worry about literacy should stage public ''read ins''. If it's possible to get a hundred strangers to congregate in a mall by posting a notice on the Internet, how hard could it be to get them to sit in a mall and read books? Reading is not a public activity in America, which is strange when you see how public it is in other countries, or notice how public television-watching has become in the US. Part of the problem is that reading is treated as a rather esoteric hobby in this country, instead of as an important dimension of one's life. Reading is vestigial in American culture because it is hidden. Perhaps we should have a national ''coming out day'' for readers.
Note: Holly here makes an interesting suggestion about another way we can encourage people to read, or at least not reward them for not reading. It's something I'd never thought of.