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Kevin Criscione | Ill Literates

#litdecline

Published: Monday, February 3, 2014

Updated: Monday, February 3, 2014 08:02

Some quick Google searches (the source of all momentous research) about the decline of pleasure reading reveal some doomsday-like headlines: “The Decline of the American Book Lover,” “America Closes the Book on Recreational Reading,” etc. According to a recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts, these claims are at least partially substantiated by statistical evidence. To quote a 2007 NPR report on the study, “On average, Americans spend two hours a day watching television and seven minutes reading.” Ouch. 

The debate about the decline of literary culture in America is complex, and I don’t want to make any bold claims specifically about where the literary world is headed or should be headed. What I can provide for you are several thoughts that occurred to me while investigating the subject that I don’t feel are frequently voiced. 

Point 1: There is no doubt these trends will be a serious issue in the 21st century, meriting a revitalization of literary enthusiasm and culture, especially among young children and adolescents. Somehow, I’m still optimistic. Though our collective attention may shift to newer and flashier media as time rolls on, I’m skeptical that our deep reverence for the written word will ever die. Literature — both fictional and not — offers something more straightforward, honest and oftentimes more emotionally intricate than film or television (which often have to deal with the odd mechanics of big-budget production and cannot come from as personal a place) and other forms of storytelling can offer. 

Point 2: I find that conversations about the alleged decline of literariness in our culture focus exclusively on the educated elite and ignore the underprivileged in our nation and the world who have throughout history struggled with issues of education and illiteracy. Resolving issues of basic literary education requires a fundamentally different discourse (one that I find far more urgent) than the one that is presently going on about how today’s college grads aren’t reading as many books. 

Point 3: It seems to me that the broader problem in our society is not so much a deficiency of reading, but a deficiency of mindfulness. Although I would like pleasure reading to surge to the forefront of popular culture, I definitely don’t think that reading fiction is the only way to productively spend free time. Watching a film intently without distractions, listening to an entire album in one sitting, siphoning off enough time in a day to engage in a creative activity that you’ve never tried before or even just going on a phone-free walk in the woods — there are infinite ways to break out of our sensory-overloaded bubbles and improve our understanding of ourselves and the world. It’s not only reading, it’s anything that can take us away from ourselves for a few hours and show us something new about the world or ourselves. This process, less quantifiable than hours spent reading for pleasure, is what I fear may be on the decline in American culture. Damn Twitter. 

Last point: Personally, I feel that our collective relationship with reading is constantly evolving and many functions that literature once performed have now been replaced by film and television and the Internet. Nevertheless, literature is an essential force in our society is here to stay. 

Book of the Week: “How to be Alone” by Jonathan Franzen, a key influence on my thoughts about reading and mindfulness. Franzen may be pretentious at times, but his collection of essays about American life and literature contains undeniably astute observations about the fate of literature, freedom and the individual in modern times. 

Next: Is it worth it/no different/lame to use a Kindle or e-reader?

 

Kevin Criscione is a junior majoring in English. He can be reached at kevin.criscione@tufts.edu. 

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