Brigitta, the dark-haired von Trapp child in The
Sound of Music who appears at her fathers
whistle with her nose buried in a book? A stern
Christopher Plummer holds out his hand for the offending
hardback, then uses it to swat her on the behindgently,
little girl was me as a kid. I read books at breakfast,
during dinner, and on the playground at school.
Once, in the fifth grade, I took home a test with
a red C on it and a note that said, Paige
was reading her own book when we went over this
bedtime, I would cunningly plant a decoy paperback
on my bedside table, which my dad would remove when
it was time for lights out. As soon as he was gone,
I would slip the book I was really reading from
underneath my mattress and flick the light back
on. Sometimes he would come to check on me and feel
the lampshade to see if it was warm.
I read under the covers with a secret flashlight.
for fun has made the endangered list for modern human
behaviors, along with letter-writing, answering the phone
without knowing who is calling, and eating carbohydrates.
to Emorys Mark Bauerlein, director of research and
analysis for the National Endowment for the Arts, a survey
commissioned by the NEA to gauge Americas interest
in the arts unexpectedly revealed a steep decline in leisure
reading between 1982 and 2002.
at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America
indicates that literary readingthe voluntary, leisurely
consumption of fiction, drama and poetryhas fallen
by more than 10 percent in the last two decades, a loss
of some twenty million potential readers. Barely half
of those surveyed said they had voluntarily read a book,
a short story, or a poem of any sort in the preceding
year. Young adults made for the most startling statistics
with a seventeen-point drop, taking them from one of the
most avid groups of readers (60 percent) to one of the
study, released last summer, has sparked some alarm, with
more than six hundred news articles and and opinion pieces
appearing around the county. Bauerlein has spent the past
several months publicizing the report in an effort, he
hopes, to counter the downward trend.
is a huge shift in leisure habits away from book reading,
Bauerlein says. Its a catastrophic consumer
trend. For publishing, the statistics are worrisome. If
they applied to driving, General Motors would be looking
a professor of English at Emory, Bauerlein is more worried
about culture than capitalism. He is concerned that, without
at least a passing knowledge of literary works, young
people will lack some critical context for their engagement
in societynot only in the arts, but in civic and
political processes as well. Literary reading, he says,
has a strong connection to civic participation.
declining readership means that one of the profound embodiments
of the human conditionliterary expressionis
disappearing from the lives of ordinary citizens,
Bauerlein wrote in the Denver Post. The legacy
of Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Dickinson, Ellison . .
. has no role in youth culture. How sharp the contrast
with figures from the past! Think of Walt Whitman, who
said he was simmering simmering simmering
until the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson brought him to
a boil and inspired Leaves of Grass.
effects on colleges and universities are sobering. College
students, Bauerlein claims, are entering school with poor
reading and writing skills; 52 percent have to do some
remedial work to reach college-level competence.
are doing the work of high school, he says. When
we have to do remedial course work for sixty more students
than we thought, it becomes a huge expense.
reading and writing skills slip, so does basic knowledge
in other critical areas, Bauerlein says.
growing body of research by diverse organizations demonstrates
the meager levels of historical, civic, and cultural knowledge
among the rising generation, he wrote recently.
Education is designed to remedy these deficiencies,
but if students dont pick up the reading habit,
the learning process turns into a desultory labor. Instead
of reading books as a long-term formation of mind and
sensibility, students search for information, download
it, print it, and turn it in for a grade. The capacity
for concentration and analysis never matures. The thirst
for knowledge and the feel for words wither.
what is tempting our youth away from the Hardy Boys and Anne of Green Gables? You guessed it: TV tops Bauerleins
list, along with video games, surfing the Internet, downloading
music on their computers, instant messaging one another,
and chatting on cell phones. Indeed, studies show the
average American kid lives in a house with 2.9 televisions,
1.8 VCRs, 3.1 radios, 2.1 CD players, 1.4 video game players,
and one computer.
is a proliferation of digital entertainment to fill their
leisure time, Bauerlein says. Books have less
and less meaning in youth culture.
there are other factors, too. In the age of urban sprawl,
longer commute times are cutting into families evening
hours that might otherwise have been spent readingeither
parents reading to children or family members reading
on their own. And less time is devoted to actually reading
in school, Bauerlein says. Children are expected to do
their reading at home, but often sports and other activities
shorten the time available for homework and encourage
only rushed, cursory reading of school books and materials.
The quality of school textbooks doesnt help, eitherthey
are frequently boring and poorly written, says Bauerlein,
and fail to get children excited about the subject matter.
be sure, Emory doesnt seem to be seriously affected
by the reported reading declineat least not yet.
Peter Dowell, professor and interim chair of the English
department, says the University continues to welcome a
higher-quality crop of students each year and for the
most part he finds their reading and writing skills to
be satisfactory, some even exceptional. But he acknowledges
that his poetry classes are made up mostly of those students
who were top of their advanced-placement English classes
in high school, so they may not be representative of the
have noticed, Dowell says, that the frame
of reference of todays students may not be quite
as literary or bookish as they once were. In particular,
visual materials are very much a part of the things they
appreciate and are familiar with. Rather than comparing
a poem to another poem or a work of fiction, they may
draw comparisons with films or other visual representations.
John Bugge, who teaches many freshman courses, reports
a slightly different experience. I do think there
has been a falling-off in reading books of literary value,
he says. When I make an allusion to a book in class,
people give me blank stares. But when I allude to a TV
show, they know just what Im talking about. Its
the audio-video culture generally, that and Blackberries,
instant messagingall the ways in which we communicate
that are no longer by the printed word.
agree that literary books hold little allure for them,
particularly when they have heavy reading loads for their
courses. Joe Bourne, an English and philosophy major from
Falmouth, Maine, admits that even as a book lover, he
doesnt read in his free time as much as he used
this is because I spend so much of my time reading for
school; when I get a break, its nice to distance
myself and do something else with my time, he says.
But I think even if I were a math or psychology
major I would not spend my free time reading at school
because reading requires thought, whereas watching Family
Guy really doesnt. Most of my friends probably
dont read for fun. They would rather work out, watch
TV, listen to music, or go to a party, a bar, or a club.
of the challenge may also lie where students prepare for
collegehigh school. Students in high school are
at a critical point in their development of a literary
appreciation, Bauerlein says, yet many find American
Idol far more compelling than Huckleberry Finn.
has been a breakdown of the rigorous standards in [high
school] literature classes, from what I can tell,
Bugge says. All too often, teachers who are pressed
for time and want to keep their students interested have
them watch movies of the classics. I think they would
do well to expose them early to good literature and make
sure they read.
universities are among those institutions most likely
to feel the ill effects of a drop in reading, they are
also ideally positioned to address the problem, Bauerlein
says. He hopes to see universities such as Emory become
more visible public advocates for reading, particularly
through efforts that reach out to high school students
directly. One such program is the Early College Initiative
of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, in which high school
and college faculty work together to boost reading standards.
must happen is that universities should start working
with high schools to develop stronger reading programs
in the pre-college years, he writes.
would help, Bauerlein adds, if universities rewarded their
faculty for such outreach to the same degree they are
rewarded for research and publication in their fields. One problem is the insularity of academics from
public life, he says. In higher education,
professors have no incentive to get involved in public
culture. Public service is not going to get you tenure.
It would make a real difference if faculty were granted
promotions, course relief, awards, and fellowships for
that kind of work.
Thomas Jefferson Award, given each spring to a faculty
member for service to the University through personal
activities, service, and leadership, is an example of
rewarding professors contributions beyond the sphere
of the lab, classroom, or discipline.
a renewal of reading will take much more than the influence
of higher education, Bauerlein acknowledges. Books
are slipping in mass culture, he says. This
is a problem of a cultural and personal behavior, and
it has to be addressed in a million different ways by
hundreds of programs.
stories include the American Academy of Pediatrics Reach Out and Read program, which allows all
children who visit participating doctors offices
to leave with a book and encourages parents to read with
their kids. Some schools are implementing an hour a day
just for reading. The One Book, One Community
program has seen dozens of cities across the country join
in reading the same book at the same time; Seattle has
grown its participation every year since 1997.
then theres Oprahs Book Club, a book-cover
logo that has spawned and nurtured reading groups across
the country. Talk-show guru Oprah Winfrey, Bauerlein points
out, is one of the few TV hosts who still regularly features
authors on her show. Some consider Oprahs book choices
to be too mainstream and popular for inclusion in the
lofty category of literature; author Jonathan Franzen
made headlines in 2002 when he scorned Oprahs stamping
of his novel The Corrections. Butno surpriseBauerlein
is a champion of the club.
was able to conserve the social aspect of reading, and
that kind of word of mouth is better than any other marketing,
he says. I mean, who else could get 700,000 copies
of Anna Karenina printed?
Im still a hopeless fiction junkie who gets
bookstore gift cards for every birthday and Christmas,
and I freely admit that I consider the Oprah logo
to mean a good read. A stack of unread books on my
bedside table makes me feel rich, even a little luxurious,
like champagne in the refrigerator.
I have since I was a kid, I wind down every evening
with a chapter or two from a novel. I dont
have to sneak the light on anymore (although sometimes,
if my partner is very tired, I read with a book
light). On the rare occasions when I travel and
have the chance to read for hours on end, I still
relish that dreamy, slightly dazed feeling that
comes from living more in a fictional world than
the real one, for a time.
have tried not to push the reading habit too hard
with my eight-year-old son, because I hope it will
become a pleasure for him, not a chore. But every
night at bedtime I let him stay up a few extra minutes
to read, pretending hes getting away with
something. And I can see, when I come in to turn
out the light, that he is beginning to discover
the quiet joy of a good book.