I argued recently with a couple of philosophy faculty at my school about the assertion that nobody reads anymore. Seems there is a feeding frenzy of this idea lately. Dennis Dillon from the University of Texas (mentioned in a previous post) made a similar claim and brought out ammo from the New Yorker and an article entitled “Twilight of Books.” The whole crisis mentality seems to be spawned by a recent NEA publication: To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence. Whoa! Heavy! We better sit up and take notice. Or course when one begins reading and then remembers that Dana Gioia is the Chairman of the NEA, you realize some of the motivation for this handwringing. Gioia has been the spokesman of “The [Cultural] World Is Going to Hell in a Handbasket” for many years. He led the charge a few years ago to help us realize that academic creative writing programs were ruining poetry in America.
Now, I am not going to argue with the basic premise here: there is a decline in reading and reading skills in the U.S. That is a bad thing. I do have issues about the degree of the problem and how others are using these data. I am disturbed about the use of the hyperbolic “nobody.” We are certainly not on the verge of becoming an oral (versus a literate) society as the New Yorker article implies.
The hyperbole is especially disturbing when we hear otherwise literate and intelligent people like Steve Jobs saying dumb stuff like this (about the Kindle) from The New York Times:
“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”
Even within his own quotation the inconsistency and stupidity are apparent. Jobs thinks the Kindle is bad because 40 percent of the population won’t use it. I guess 60 percent of the population is not a good enough market share for Jobs. The frightening thing is that Jobs is in a position to make this a self-fulfilling prophesy. Clearly Jobs and Apple will be catering to the music and video markets and ignoring readers. I had heard scuttlebutt that Apple might be developing a small tablet PC-sized device with a multi-touch screen (something like a large iPhone), which could conceivably have been a killer reading device. One has to doubt whether Apple is interested in that market at all now.
This is the greatest danger this kind of hyperbole creates. It doesn’t become a rallying cry to save reading; it becomes a rationale to give up on readers. Since they are such a small percentage of the population, we don’t have to worry about them anymore. Don’t believe it! When somebody says “nobody” readers anymore, stand up and say, bullshit! Lots of people still read.
I was glad to see that ACRLog didn’t buy into the hyperbole. Librarians need to continue serving the needs of readers. Librarians also need to invent new ways of serving readers. Certainly, librarians need to grow more readers. Our work here is NOT done!
An afterthought: I don’t in any way decry the development of other types of media literacy. I think YouTube has been a tremendous development, giving the average Joe as chance to learn a lot about how video products are made and to talk back to the media conglomerates. That is probably less the case with the music industry, but there are a lot of ways for musicians to participate in the online world and promote their work that didn’t exist before the Internet (or before 2.0-ness).