I would say that this is because we are reading worse books now than they were then. Our number-one bestseller is “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
But in 1972, the best-selling book was something called “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” This was a book about a seagull, an actual bona fide seagull who wanted to fly higher and teach other seagulls to love. “Fifty Shades of Grey” may be embarrassing, but at least it’s not about an anthropomorphic seagull with dreams.
So it’s not the books.
Personally, I blame the test.
Here is how I recollect the SAT reading portion.
First, there was a long paragraph that went something as follows, with the introduction:
“In the 1890s, everyone hated the book from which you are about to read an excerpt.
“When Mrs. Fetier’s husband showed up at the granary, he was in high dudgeon. (1) Mrs. Fetier did not blame the man. (2) He had had a long day at work in some sort of factory where he did some sort of work, possibly involving pasteboard, and she was content. (3)
“Or was she content? (4) Sometimes, the wallpaper appeared to be speaking to her in a rich, throaty, stentorian voice. (5) ‘Loo,’ the wallpaper said. ‘Loo?’ (6)
“It did not do to dwell on such things things.” (7)
“I have between 18,637 and 19,436 different types of lepidoptera in my collection. I have always been fond of their gossamer wings. I especially love the one given to me by my Uncle Robert before he died. Uncle Robert was a partisan of lepidopteras himself and frequently remarked upon this fact, smoking his cigar. Ah! Life! He was seventy-seven when the gallimaufry took, him.
“Love eluded both of us.”
Then came the questions.
In passage A, is the narrator:
D) sexually ambiguous
In passage A, what does the word “dudgeon” mean?
A) something Mrs. Fetier’s husband is in a lot, probably related to his work at the granary.
C) underground jail
In passage A, how does Mrs. Fetier feel about her husband?
A) stentorian, but raptor
B) not A
C) not B
D) pensive, but brontosaurus
E) passage does not offer enough clues
In sentences 6 and 7, what are the sentiments of the wallpaper?
A) Stepping back from this, I can see why the people in 1890 hated this book, if the rest of it is like this at all.
B) Loo. Loo?
C) First, the wallpaper isn’t in sentence 7 at all. Second, there’s a typo in sentence 7, which repeats the word “things” twice, and I find it distracting. Third, I don’t know. “Expressive.” Let’s go with “expressive.”
In passage B, what is a lepidoptera?
A) I don’t know, and I don’t think the author of the passage knows either.
B) Seriously, I don’t think the passage is using that word correctly.
C) One of those things that people in SAT questions and movies have big collections of, but if a real person did, you would be very uncomfortable around them.
D) This answer is definitely wrong.
How old is the narrator of passage B?
A) Old enough to know better, but young enough not to care!
B) I really don’t think the passage offers any clues to his age.
C) Like, 30? I guess?
D) Between 18,637 and 19,436.
F) There are only four bubbles for you to fill in, but I just wanted to fill you with panic and bewilderment.
What is the similarity between passages A and B?
A) Both are poorly written excerpts from unfamiliar works that do not appear to be using the vocabulary words correctly.
B) They both have typos.
C) The first passage doesn’t use the word “gallimaufry,” and I wish the second passage didn’t either.
D) Loo. Loo?
What I’m saying is, unless they have radically changed the SAT in recent years, no wonder our scores are down. Seagulls aside.