August 27, 2004

Reading at Risk

The NEA just released a study entitled "Reading at Risk" which empirically demonstrates the disturbing but obvious fact of our times that, suprise! -- people are reading less.

Steve Bennett of the San Antonio Express-News is writing this up, and sent out the following email:

"Bennett, Steve" wrote:

> hola all,this is a mass message trying to get some feedback for a
> story i'm working on the recent NEA study "Reading at Risk."Basically,
> the 20-year study says that while there remains a huge audience of
> readers in the country (122,000 new titles in 2000, with sales of 2.5
> billion books), the number of people reading literature -- fiction,
> short stories, plays, poetry -- is declining. It's off 15 percent from
> 1982, with the steepest slide in the 18-24 age group (28 percent
> decline). reasons given are electronic media, video games, etc. men,
> for some reason, don't read novels. i wonder if you are familiar with
> the report and have any thoughts to share on the subject. as NEA chief
> Dana Gioia notes: "More than reading is at stake. As this report
> unambiguously demonstrates, readers play a more active and involved
> role in their communities. The decline in reading therefore parallels
> a larger retreat from participation in civic and cultural life."the
> report goes on to state that, "Indeed, at the current rate of loss,
> literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in
> half a century."pretty alarming stuff. is this, finally, the beginning
> of the "death of the novel"? do your students read literature for
> pleasure (without you having to assign it and then pound them over the
> head)? have you noticed a change in attitudes toward literature? what
> does this mean for our society? and what, if anything, can be done?i'd
> really appreciate your feedback for publication in the story/column
> i'm planning for upcoming national literacy day. of course, my
> deadline is yesterday. thanks so much.steve p.s. if you have any
> students who'd be willing to talk to a reporter on the record about
> their reading habits of lack of, please let me know.

In response to this my father composed this essay:

Response to the "Reading at Risk" NEA study from Bryce Milligan

As both a "literary" publisher and a writer, the NEA's findings are
horrifying, yet they come as no surprise. Publishing has become such a
huge business that all too often the creative sparks that generate
literary flames can be trampled into non-flamable dust. Literary
authors, once so doused by the major houses, may then turn to the
smaller regional presses where they know that their creative vision will
be honored and transmuted into a printed form that is intended for the
thoughtful reader rather than skewed to meet some imagined mass market.
These smaller regional presses struggle to get the attention of the more
important review outlets, but are basically outbid for review space by
the advertising budgets of the major houses. Thus most literary titles
published in the US today never even reach the awareness threshold of
most readers.

And that is only one scenario of the dozens that have been advanced to
explain the drop in the popularity of literary fiction and poetry. But
it explains a lot. Serious readers haunt bookstores, for the most part,
not websites. If new literary works are not on the shelves, how are
these potential readers to learn of their existence? This is like asking
why a certain plant no longer thrives in nutrient-depleted soil. But
this is merely a pragmatic explanation of a problem, the threads of
which run -- as the NEA study attempts to explain -- throughout the
fabric of post-World War II American culture. The thrust of all those
multiple explanations comes down to the fact that the world we inhabit
is no longer conducive to leisure reading.

No doubt, the pace of contemporary life has speeded up, driven by the
increased speed with which our tools allow us to accomplish work. To
take a single example from the trade itself: As a book designer, it was
only a few years ago that it took a full month or more to typeset and
lay out a book, taking it from the author's manuscript to a product
ready to be printed. I can do the same job now in a single day, and do
it "better" and more accurately. So what was lost? A month of creative
thought -- the kind of intense yet reflective rumination that goes into
the creation of any work of art. So the speed of the machines that allow
this 30-to-1 collapse of time in turn mandate the reduction of human
creative input by a similar ratio. Thus one struggles with one's tools
not to master their usage, but to make up for that loss of purely
creative time. Philosophically speaking, the worker who is engaged in
with a struggle with his tools simply cannot produce the best work of
which either is capable.

But again, this is one simple, pragmatic explanation to a complex
problem which may in fact not allow for a satisfactory solution. What if
our tools -- our computers and cell phones and all the rest -- have
created a world in which leisure reading is simply not possible? An
answer has been proposed by science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov
and Frank Herbert: revolution against the machines. We are not anywhere
near that point, it seems to me, but I do know that as a publisher, I
increasingly meet "writers" who do not read. This sad oxymoronic
character is an accidental victim of his or her arrival in the world --
gifted with creative genius -- at a time when there is no time to hone
their craft.

The bards and poets of antiquity were expected to know by heart most of
the important texts of their time before they were even permitted to
produce their own creative works. The literary authors of the past
several centuries were expected to be well read in many topics, from
literature to science to philosophy to history. Neither writers nor
readers can be expected to leap fully formed from the brow of Zeus. If
they are today so deceived by the illusion of our accelerated world as
to imagine that reading is a mere luxury, then we are in fact fated to
endure George Santayana's dictum that those who do not know the past are
doomed to repeat its failures. More to the point in today's political
environment, those who do not know the past have no way of knowing when
the prevailing political powers decide to reinvent the past to justify
their actions. One of the best things that a book has over a computer
screen is that you can be 100% certain that what the book says today is
the same thing it said yesterday. In an ever-changing world, that is an
element of certainty that is not lightly waived.

-- Bryce Milligan

Posted by mill1974 at August 27, 2004 7:12 PM