Everyone is shocked, yet no one is surprised.
I suppose that in a survey of 17,135 adults, only 56.6% reading a book of any kind in the previous year is pretty shocking. Especially so to those of us who easily read a few dozen books in a year just for the hell of it. But the survey also took account of those who attended a live arts performance in the previous year, and I must admit that I would have skewed that part of the survey towards the negative. If you only have so much time and money, you're going to pick your entertainments. For many, books require too much of both. (Yes, yes, libraries. "Borrow them!" Sure. But depending upon what's going on in my life, I've often taken weeks to finish simple, relatively short books just for the lack of time. Three weeks with a borrowed book is no guarantee that it'll get read. Then there are other times when I can devour 400 pages in 2 days. Not to mention that my eyes are always bigger than my, er, stomach? brain? when I go to the library.)
Two interesting quotes, though. Well, more, probably, but these are particularly interesting. First:
On the other hand Kevin Starr, librarian emeritus for the state of California and a professor of history at the University of Southern California, said that if close to 50 percent of Americans are reading literature, "that's not bad, actually."
"In an age where there's no canon, where there are so many other forms of information, and where we're returning to medieval-like oral culture based on television," he said, "I think that's pretty impressive, quite frankly." Mr. Starr continued: "We should be alarmed, I suppose, but the horse has long since run out of the barn. There are two distinct cultures that have evolved, and by far the smaller is the one that's tied up with book and high culture. You can get through American life and be very successful without anybody ever asking you whether Shylock is an anti-Semitic character or whether `Death in Venice' is better than `The Magic Mountain.' "
This is a very glass-half-full approach. Most people not only don't need to know these things, they're openly suspicious of the kind of person who does.
Then there's this:
"It's not just unfortunate, it's real cause for concern," said James Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia University. "A culture gets what it pays for, and if we think democracy depends on people who read, write, think and reflect — which is what literature advances — then we have to invest in what it takes to promote that." [Emphasis mine.]
But does it? I mean, right now we have a president who claims that he's the best man for the job because he doesn't stop to reflect. That might only make him change his mind, and the surest test of a man is the courage of his convictions. Not their wisdom or practicality, but the fact that he'll never, ever put them to any intellectual test, he's that sure that they're right. I agree that true democracy is based upon thought and reflection on the part of an informed electorate, but the electorate would rather reflect upon which candidate they'd rather hang out with than whose policies make sense. They want bread and circuses, shock and awe, not thought and reflection.