When I’m in a masochistic mood, I survey the 8:03 into the city to see how many of my fellow drones are passing the time by reading. Only about half the people have their noses in newspapers, magazines, and (rarely) books. The rest are either dozing or entertaining themselves with iPods, laptops loaded with TV shows and movies, and hand-held devices that their owners peck at frantically, like pigeons in a Skinner box. I find this not a little depressing, and not just because my only marketable skill is to string words together in some reasonably useful order. In five years, or 10, will anyone besides us ancients from the pre-Internet era read for pleasure? The trends are not encouraging. A new report by the National Endowment for the Arts found that 15- to 24-year-olds spend an average of just seven minutes a day on voluntary reading. Two-thirds of all college freshmen said they almost never read a book or an article outside their schoolwork.
So what? you might fairly ask. Young people are reading plenty on the Web, and texting, and expressing themselves on MySpace and Facebook and 10 million blogs. But on the Web, as National Journal media critic William Powers has pointed out, you don’t really read. You “forage,” jumping from link to link, entry to entry, message to message. It’s a world of fragmented attention and immediate gratification. Reading a book, or a well-constructed article, on the other hand, seduces you into putting everything aside; you have to focus. That practice develops concentration, and the capacity to follow—and express—complex thoughts and ideas. Not surprisingly, national tests have found that the ability to write and read complex materials is withering, even among graduate students. Read a whole book? R U serious? LOL. - William Falk