reading

Books and Those Who Read Them Are the Real Endangered Species

4 ½ min

In the February 2021 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, Professor Mark Brennan declares, “My students look at me in amazement when I tell them I read 8 to 10 hours per day. I look at them in amazement when they tell me they play video games 16 hours straight.” Brennan then went on to wonder if his book reading habits qualify him for “endangered species” status.

Two weeks after I read these words, my sister, her husband, and my friend John came to celebrate my birthday with me. All of us are over 60 years old.

During the several days that they were here, I offered them a DVD player and some movies I own for their amusement, but they rebuffed me each time, saying they preferred to read the books they’d brought with them or something from my personal library. For three to five hours every day of their visit, they sat with a book in hand, absorbed and whisked away by the story. When I passed through the room while they were reading, I realized once again that few sights move me more deeply than a human being engrossed in a book.

But are readers like these becoming “an endangered species?”

Maybe not endangered, but the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has reported our reading habits are waning.

As of 2017, Americans spent an average of almost 17 minutes per day reading for personal interest (as compared to almost three hours watching television and 28 minutes playing games and using computers for leisure). The average is down about five minutes since 2003.
Younger Americans (ages 15 to 44) spent, on average, less than 10 minutes per day reading for personal interest.

The article points out that college graduates read more than those with a high school diploma, but even then, only 55 percent of those with advanced degrees had read a novel or a short story in the past year, while about half had read some historical work.

Meanwhile, a majority of American students in the fourth and eighth grades failed to demonstrate reading proficiency at their grade level. In studying tests conducted between 2017 and 2019, the National Endowment for the Arts found that reading scores had once again fallen. With so many of our schools shut down by the pandemic in the last year, we can expect those scores to dip even further.

The Academy report also points out that this decline in books and reading, along with competition from online outfits like Amazon and from electronic books, has brought about a closure of brick-and-mortar bookstores. Between 1992 and 2016, the number of these stores had fallen by about half. With the pandemic having shuttered small businesses across the nation for so long, we can speculate that even fewer bookstores exist today.

Despite these grim findings, many Americans remain readers. Most of my relatives usually have a book going, and visiting sites like goodreads.com shows that millions of people are still interested in books, some of whom track their reading and finish dozens of books every year. In my local library I see lots of children, many of them homeschoolers, leave the building with bags and backpacks stuffed with novels, histories, and biographies.

Whether we read e-books or prefer hard copies, tackling a novel, biography, or other books bestows enormous benefits in our age of jittery distraction. Reading certain books forces us to concentrate for longer periods of time than we do while sprinting from site to site online. Books like Dostoevsky’s Devils or Lance Morrow’s God and Mammon, both of which I’m in the midst of reading currently, demand the employment of certain analytical skills and close reading that I don’t practice when skimming through online articles.

In the article mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Professor Brennan mentions his frequent visits to the university library, where the students poke at their electronic devices and ignore the books around them.

Our library serves as a giant study hall, with stacks of musty books squeezing out valuable study space. I joke with my students in class, ‘I could remove all the books from the shelves and burn them on the library steps. No one would notice. Then we could replace the stacks with more study spaces!’ They laugh. Then they ask me why the school doesn’t do that. I cry.

Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, once wrote, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

When we make readers of our children, when we ourselves read books, we help keep our culture and our civilization alive.

And here’s more good news: We might even have some fun along the way.

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Dear Readers,

Big Tech is suppressing our reach, refusing to let us advertise and squelching our ability to serve up a steady diet of truth and ideas. Help us fight back by becoming a member for just $5 a month and then join the discussion on Parler @CharlemagneInstitute and Gab @CharlemagneInstitute!

Image Credit: 

StockSnap-Burst, CC0 1.0

Jeff Minick

Jeff Minick

Jeff Minick lives in Front Royal, Virginia, and may be found online at jeffminick.com. He is the author of two novels, Amanda Bell and Dust on Their Wings, and two works of non-fiction, Learning as I Go and Movies Make the Man.

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M.R.Sellnow
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Fantastic article; similar thoughts have frequently been the topic of my ruminations, especially of late. I recently contacted my high school English teacher to offer thanks for sharing a love of reading (which was also reinforced at home) with her students. She now works as a librarian in the small elementary school, but reported that kids just are not reading these days, nor are they even required to do so. How saddening this is. Although I still cannot recite fully "The Wreck of the Hesperus" by Longfellow, I still get much enjoyment from reading it from time to time; memorization of such poems is also much shunned these days. Anyway, much as you do, I believe reading is critical to a deeper understanding of the world around us and should be undertaken not only for pleasure but for personal growth and learning. You wrote once about reading "The Story of Civilization" by Will and Ariel Durant, which inspired me to get some copies of my own. Another 'set' I highly recommend and am currently working on are the Harvard Classics (Five Foot Shelf of Books), compiled by Charles Eliot. In his words "My aim was not to select the best fifty, or best hundred, books in the world, but to give, in twenty-three thousand pages or thereabouts, a picture of the progress of the human race within historical times, so far as that progress can be depicted in books. The purpose of The Harvard Classics is, therefore, one different from that of collections in which the editor's aim has been to select a number of best books; it is nothing less than the purpose to present so ample and characteristic a record of the stream of the world's thought that the observant reader's mind shall be enriched, refined and fertilized." Read on!
 
 

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M.R.Sellnow
I neglected to note that memorizing the aforementioned poem by Longfellow was required coursework in English class... :)
flyfisher111
"Thou, too, sail on, O' ship of state, Sail on O' Union, Strong and great. Humanity, and all its fears, With all its hope of future years, Is hanging breathless on thy fate. Recalled from 8th grade, 1958 ! She made us memorize everything - and prove it!
flyfisher111
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Just ran across this: As I watch this new generation try to rewrite our history, one thing I'm sure of.... it will be misspelled and have no punctuation.
 
 

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stephenfeldman
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Public high school reading has eliminated longer novels. You know what remains is largely PC rhetoric disguised as young adult pablum Amazing some Shakespeare survives at all. Poetry? Most teachers haven't read any!
 
 

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mountainseagull
My cousin who teaches at a well known Cambridge MA institution, tells me (we are the only readers we know) that Norton Anthologies have replaced the real thing. No one reads the whole megillah anymore. Everything has been syncopated, edited, predigested for the pablum minded idiots of today.
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Kalikiano
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Another thoughtful and worthily reflective rumination, Jeff. I am and have all my life been an omnivorous reader...a habit that began early in life, thanks to my highly educated mother (and poetic Irish father), my literary imagination having been further encouraged by a strong interest in science-fiction literature as an adolescent. However, I've never been possessed of an outstanding memory, so I tend to surround myself with books and at present my overall personal library exceeds some 2000 books, covering a wide range of reference subjects. I also have ADD, so being able to read in almost total isolation has been crucial to my ability to absorb and retain information. Some time ago, I found that people of my particular affliction are identified by the Japanese term 'Tsundoku', whereby one acquires great hoards of books, almost fully knowing that they shall never all be fully read! All that said, reading is for me perhaps the single other important quality of a fulfilled, actualised life (second only to writing) and I view the present pattern of attenuated focus and attention (that slavishly hews to modern 'electronic' social media, almost exclusively) on the part of younger individuals with growing alarm! We are presently caught in a maelstrom of changing social values and cultural patterns and I share your alarm over the adverse 'control' those changes are permitting a small, select group of powerfully influential people to exert their unrealistically idealistic, often fantastical vision on us, both as a people and as a nation. I am further reminded, perhaps somewhat ironically, of San Francisco 50s-era poet Jack Spicer, who said (also ironically) "My vocabulary did this to me!" [Thank the GODS it did!]
 
 

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Harley Smedlapp
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The only way this trend will change is with the advent of a massive electromagnetic pulse (EMP).
 
 

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