(From the March 12, 2009 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)
A few months ago, my wife and I were on a date night at an area book store. (Yeah, I’m a cheap date, but that’s not important now. ) She came up to me laughing and handed me a book: “How to Read a Book.” We both thought it was funny. A book about reading books! Sort of like a coffee table book about coffee tables.
But on closer inspection, I saw this was an actual, well, book. In fact the book, written by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren originally in 1940, is a best-seller and considered a classic. It has been reprinted several times.
So I did what one does with actual books—I read it. The authors cover a lot of topics related to reading books. They review the goals of reading, either for information or understanding. They outline the levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, and analytical. They even give detailed guidance for reading various specific types of book, from ‘practical’ to literary, from science to history. In other words, this book was far more serious than we originally thought.
This caused me to think a little more about reading. It seems to be something taken for granted today. So many jobs involve reading—in business, health care, manufacturing and any job you can think of there is some reading required. When you can read, you assume everyone can and does.
But, that’s not the case. In January of this year, the U.S. Education Department released statistics stating that more than 32 million, or about 14 percent of Americans, are illiterate. Some people literally cannot read at all; others are ‘functionally’ illiterate, meaning they can’t read and comprehend at a level necessary to understand instructions, follow road signs, or perform a job. These people need more personal attention than a book on how to read a book.
However, I worry about the rest of us who can actually read, myself included. Adler and VanDoren appear to be addressing educated people in the ways to engage in critical thinking to expand mental acuity and depth of understanding of a variety of complex subjects. Back in 1940, radio was a new medium that was all the rage. Perhaps the authors of this book worried that people were sitting in their rocking chairs by the fire and just listening to people talk versus reading text. They wrote the book to encourage and help people maintain their intellectual capacity.
Imagine how they might worry today. With television and the various temptations of the Internet, I wonder if many people read books anymore, or if they do, if they read them well.
There’s no doubt that television has eroded people’s reading habits. News comes to us constantly in bite-sized morsels, with visuals and audio. While studies show that newspapers and magazines do still have readers, percentages are consistently less than TV. I notice in the way people write that they are not avid readers—spelling, word choices, and punctuation reflects they are mimicking what they heard on TV, not what they have read. I will admit that after a long day of work it is easy for me to collapse in front of a television. That’s because for me, like probably so many other people, work involves reading—emails, reports, memos, and various other documents. The thought of reading a book seems like an extension of “work” versus a break from it.
Even when we do read, the Internet has taught us to be fans of brevity. Online, we talk about “pages,” but we mostly seek instant, concise nuggets of information. Studies show that most people won’t bother to scroll past the first page of search results, or in most cases past the bottom of the screen once they found the information for which they were seeking. To read a book as compared to this fast-paced environment is a shock. Nothing but actual pages one must turn with a finger. There may be photos and illustrations, but no links to click on or embedded video.
One aspect of the World Wide Web—social media—hasn’t encouraged book reading either. Facebook, MySpace and similar sites cultivate short-attention spans with the addictive need to check status updates. Web logs, or blogs, contain posts that are typically only a few paragraphs. Twitter, the micro blog application, limits literary contributions, called “Tweets,” to 140 characters.
At the end of the day, it seems we have lots of information, but less knowledge perhaps. We do lots of surface scratching, and have little depth to our understanding.
But there may be help in the form of another technology: the Kindle. This device, sold by Amazon, enables owners to wireless download actual books, which can be read with a special technology called electric ink. Books—as in multiple pages and chapters. Who knows? The Japanese have been reading books on their cell phones for years. A Kindle application is already available for iPhones and iPods. Maybe those inclined to gadgets will “discover” books.
I’m a bit of a gadget hound myself, but still prefer to read books in the old-fashioned, bound paper format. Last week, which was Spring Break where I teach, I stayed home. I spent a little time experimenting with social media since I teach it and advise clients on its appropriate use. That was interesting. But I also went to the library and checked out a novel to read. That was refreshing.