Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Are Books Even Important Any More?

Why is reading important?

And by that I mean literary reading, as opposed to other kinds of reading, like salsa recipes, street signs and the latest juicy gossip about Britney and Lindsay.

Is literary reading more important than reading magazines? Newspapers? The Internet? That little chart of nutritional facts on your last can of Who Hash? (How's that for a literary reference!)

As I plow my way through the National Endowment for the Arts report entitled Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, it's clear that Americans of every demographic group are reading less. All education levels. All ethnic groups. All age groups—but the steepest decline in literary reading is among the youngest age group studied, down 28% over the last twenty years among 18- to 24-year olds.

So what? Does it really matter any more if people are reading novels, short stories, poetry or drama? Who gives a dang? Who cares? What's that stuff have to do with today's world? In my gut I know it's important, but it's hard to explain why to someone who hasn't thumbed through a book since they had to write a book report for Mrs. Grumhipple.

I saw this quote in the report by Dana Gioia, the NEA's Chairman: "Literary reading is fading as a meaningful activity, especially among younger people. If one believes that active and engaged readers lead richer intellectual lives than non-readers and that a well-read citizenry is essential to a vibrant democracy, the decline of literary reading calls for serious action." And then this: "Indeed, at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century." Is this guy just a pick-me-up, or what?

So would you rather be stuck in an elevator for eight hours with someone who reads literature or someone who doesn't? Would you prefer your company to hire a reader or a non-reader? Would you prefer your daughter to marry a guy who's well-read or a guy who only uses books as doorstops? Would you prefer our next President to be an avid reader or someone who's too busy counting donations and reading polls?

If you chose the literary reader...why?

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