As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, draw your chairs up close to the precipice, children, and I'll tell you a story. This one involves bad news growing worse and what we are to make of it.
Current headlines are grim enough. War in the Falklands reminds us of the worldwide failure to find ways to stop conflicts in the nuclear age. It underscores how such seemingly insignificant disputes can spread overnight into ones carrying far graver consequences. Tremors on Wall Street recall other American business weaknesses. They reinforce an awareness of the fragility of the present international economic structure. Stalemate in Washington brings fresh concern. It arouses doubts about the stagnation of our political system.
In the face of such momentous subjects swirling around us, it perhaps seems frivolous to raise a question here about reading. That's right, reading. More specifically, about evidence of further deterioration in the ability and desire of Americans to read.
Still, I will argue a relationship exists, however tangential, between the disturbing news events at home and abroad and the continuing decline of U.S. readership.
Not that a more literate public will necessarily produce solutions to our many problems. But certainly a less literate one will be even more incapable of thinking about how to find them.
If individual perspective comes from personal experience and one's life is a great teacher, collective wisdom stems from understanding the forces that have shaped the world in which we live. Even the miracles of our electronic age have yet to produce anything that approaches the printed page, bound in a book, as a vehicle for conveying knowledge. It remains what it has been for centuries: the best way to provide a perspective on the past so that we can draw the right lessons for the future.
That critical perspective is lost if people have neither the inclination nor the aptitude for pondering them.
In this sense, I take today's text from Elisabeth Sifton, editor-in-chief of the Viking Press. Sifton, in remarks before Massachusetts Institute of Technology students reprinted in The Nation, offers this appraisal of the state of U.S. readership:
"There is no doubt that in the past decades it has been declining and that the general culture is thinning out. Literacy as a phenomenon of growth and modernization is a thing of the past.
"Until recently, this was a country of readers: people of all trades and professions and habits of mind read books. Now only students read, and that rarely, just as they are only barely made to write. Teachers, of course, don't read at all. You can tell that from the way they boast that they're too busy to, and when they commit a book to paper themselves, it is likely to be unreadable.
"Lastly, the actual teaching shows they have little interest in encouraging students to be competent in, much less enthusiastic about, their language, their literature and their minds."
As she says, you'll say you've heard all this before, and you have, about Johnny and Jane being made neither to read nor to write in their formative elementary school years, about scholastic achievement test scores for entering college students dropping year after year, about the dwindling audience for books and the corresponding lack of a sense of history among increasing numbers of citizens, especially the young.
And, of course, about the influence of television.
Even the greatest best seller, the super blockbuster of print, doesn't begin to attract "a modest segment of the audience for a television program that rates low on the Nielsen scale."
I checked with Broadcasting, the authoritative trade journal of the industry, and came up with arresting figures about how Americans spend time before their TV sets:
Each day, the average American household has a TV set playing for 6 hours and 44 minutes, a new record for usage in the home.
As of the first of this year, there was a TV in 98 percent of American homes, 86 percent of them had color ones, and 59 percent of all households had two or more sets.
The total potential audience that can be reached by TV now numbers 215 million people, an increase of 15 million in just seven years. On Sunday nights, in prime time, the actual viewing audience now stands at 107 million Americans. Just about half the country tunes into something then.
While these figures keep rising, the ones for the reading public keep dropping. As Sifton says, "It's getting smaller all the time," and adds, sardonically:
"There is a natural limit on the readership for serious fiction, poetry and non-fiction in America that ranges, I would say, between 500 and 5,000 people--roughly a hundred times the number of the publisher's and the author's immediate friends (Sifton's Law)."
The point is not about the fortunes of the publishing industry or booksellers. Nor is it about the relative quality of American television.
It involves something more troubling. As critics like Sifton observe, "the American people are not reading serious books the way they used to," and that "is but a single telling symptom of the crisis of literacy in our time."
In the past, she goes on to say, the doomsayers decrying the state of literature were angry "because they thought the increasing quantity of bad literature and poor readers were driving out the good, the true and the beautiful; because the best stuff was not being supported with appropriate respect and enthusiasm. But in the modern age, high literature has not been created except in a context provided by widespread habits of readership across broad sectors of the population. And for the first time since the early 18th century, that readership is declining."
So, I would argue, is our sense of perspective, our ability to place events in context and to profit from past mistakes. As news from the Falklands reminds us, Santayana's old aphorism remains painfully applicable: those who cannot remember the past are still condemned to repeat it.
Footnote: Even as I write, and literally at this point, news comes over the New York wire that Brentano's, the 149-year-old bookstore chain, is instituting bankruptcy court proceedings as part of a plan to eliminate half its stores.