We hear often about the decline of reading and what a nasty harbinger it is. But seldom do we hear the case made as convincingly as Caleb Crain puts it in the December 24th New Yorker. That's because Crain is not content, as are many defenders of the written word (Fordham included), to base his arguments on maintaining a shared literary culture and noting how much we all can learn from, say, old man Lear. Indeed, one could argue that Americans have long shared a culture, not of literature, but of TV shows and politics and sports (replace Lear with Barry Bonds). Crain, though, dispenses with philosophy and structures his essay around science--how reading (and other activities that distract from it, such as watching TV and surfing the web) affect the human brain. His article shows that more-literate people--and, one deduces, more-literate societies--have an altogether different way of interacting in the world. Literate folks are more likely to think abstractly, to eschew stereotype and embrace analysis, and to correct their own inconsistencies. Furthermore, the process of reading (scanning words and deriving their meaning), unlike watching TV, does not itself require much brain activity. That sounds like a bad thing, but it actually allows one to both receive information and consider that information simultaneously. Reading becomes, therefore, a sort of solitary conversation--an internal dialogue with others, that helps us better evaluate the outside world and ourselves. The dwindling number of bookworms doesn't mean we're headed to Hell in a hand basket, but it's no light thing, either.
"Twilight of the Books," by Caleb Crain, The New Yorker, December 24, 2007