In suburban Maryland, school librarians wrestled with an old problem last week: an attempt by parents to have books removed from the library shelves because of fears that children reading them could be adversely influenced, in this case to practice devil-worship or to try to cast spells. In the end one book was removed and one permitted to stay, but that's not really what makes the story newsworthy; instead, it's the implicit assumption on the part of all involved in the case that books still matter, that reading still is important enough to change lives.
If it strikes you as strange that this should be novel, then you haven't been paying attention. As one who writes for a living and, into the bargain, spends a good part of that living reviewing other people's books, I do myself no good to say so, but a strong case can be made that the central reality of contemporary American culture -- the one out of which many other trends arise and to which almost all are in some way connected -- is the declining role and influence of books specifically and reading generally.
All about us is the evidence that we are on the verge of becoming -- if indeed we have not already become -- not so much an illiterate culture as one in which new ways of acquiring knowledge, information and entertainment will reduce the old literacy to a marginal activity practiced by a small if influential elite. Yes, book publishers continue to prosper, if in the roller-coaster pattern that seems to have become entrenched, and magazines still come and go in bewildering profusion; in any number of ways you can find evidence, if you look hard enough, that Americans have not yet given up reading in this age of television and technology.
What is beyond question, though, is that all but a tiny minority have forsaken reading, especially books, for anything except necessity. Depressing testimony to that effect was produced last week by two reporters for the Wall Street Journal, Joan E. Rigdon and Alecia Swasy, who surveyed the reading habits of American schoolchildren and wrote: "Experts and teachers agree that the nation's literacy problem is rooted in modern culture, where flashy distractions easily win short attention spans away from literary pursuits. Instead of reading, writing letters or discussing politics, students spend their free time watching television, talking on the phone, zapping video monsters and playing sports."
As one of several cases in point, Rigdon and Swasy spoke with a teenager in New Jersey who told them: "I don't like to read. I think it's boring"; she'd read "Romeo and Juliet" in school, thought that "it's okay," but admitted, the Journal reported, "she prefers teen magazines." But then what teenager in her right mind doesn't? It is in the nature of teenagers, not merely teenagers of the late 20th century, to choose fun over work.
The difference isn't in the teenagers but in the times. As Rigdon and Swasy point out, distractions such as never tempted their parents are all about. Some are unpleasant -- "the lure of drugs or the pain of divorce" -- but most are delicious: "... televisions and telephones are sprouting in students' bedrooms. And new types of gizmos and more activities vie for students' attention." Of all the shared characteristics of these distractions, the most salient and pertinent is that they are, by contrast with books and reading, easy: They require little physical effort, and scarcely any intellectual exertion at all.
By contrast with these amusements, reading indeed seems "boring," not to mention difficult and demanding. But to suggest that it is all the fault of a trivial teenage subculture, as do some who deplore the "crisis" of "illiteracy," is to miss the point entirely. The decline in reading is in all respects a product of the larger culture, one shaped by adults, and it is this culture that suffers from it every bit as do the young people whose habits it is so easy to mock and deride.
For some years, it has seemed to me something of a miracle that anyone at all reads anymore. To read books for a living, as I and a handful of others are fortunate enough to do, is to labor under a thoroughly warped impression of the circumstances in which most Americans read. It is easy for me, after a day in an easy chair with a new novel or work of nonfiction, to climb into my pulpit and decry the decline of reading in the general culture; it is a lot harder to try to understand just how many obstacles and temptations lie in the path of the ordinary would-be reader.
For the American working man and woman, no less than for the American teenager, making the commitment to read in a systematic fashion is far more difficult than it was only a quarter-century ago. The middle-class woman who spends part of each day reading books when the household chores are done and the children are at school -- my mother was one such -- has not entirely disappeared, but she's going fast. Whether for reasons of money or liberation, middle-class women are now just like middle-class men: They work, and when they come home at the end of the day -- for many, men and women alike, a day spent at a word processor or other forms of reading -- it takes a powerful effort of will for them to spend their evening with books.
In the first place there is domestic work to be done; if husband and wife are both home by 6 p.m., that work isn't likely to be done before 8 or 8:30. They have to rise the next morning at 6 or 6:30. Isn't it much more relaxing, much less demanding, just to turn on the color television and watch a show, or pop a tape into the VCR and watch a movie? Isn't it easier to flip on the CD player and get lost in music? Isn't it easier to do almost anything except put the brain back into fourth gear and pick up a hot new novel or a revered old classic?
Of course it is. Unpleasant though it may be for traditionalists such as myself to admit it, there are now alternatives to reading that a great many people, with ample reason, find far more appealing. A half-century ago people read stories in Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post for nocturnal entertainment; now they watch Bill Cosby or listen to Linda Ronstadt. Whether this is progress is for each to decide, but one thing is certain: It is reality, and there's no turning back from it. We are in a new age, and reading -- especially reading books unconnected to one's work -- simply does not occupy the central place in it that it did in the old world.
In these circumstances it seems inescapable -- if to some of us lamentable -- that what we mean by "literacy" is going to change. Of necessity it will continue to entail the basic ability to read and write, if only because these skills are still required in order to receive and transmit much essential information. But whereas in the past a literate person was also assumed to be one with a fair knowledge of literature past and present, can that be true in a future where this knowledge will be at best the province of a tiny minority? Will literacy mean a knowledge of "Citizen Kane" and "Your Show of Shows" instead of "Pride and Prejudice" and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber"? Will literacy mean a high level of sophistication at computers instead of a grounding in Aristotle and Plato?
Don't laugh. The millennium may not be here but the new world most certainly is. The real problem isn't to get people reading the way they used to, but to figure out how to keep them reading at all.