Extra-Curricular Reading Continues to Decline
> 7/16/2007 2:54:35 PM

The unearthly success of the Harry Potter series (and its endless line of movies and merchandise) may lead one to believe that upcoming generations, and many of their older counterparts, have again taken to literature, be it of the young-adult variety. But this single trend is unfortunately misleading, as the frequency of reading for pleasure continues to plummet among all age groups. Is this an instance of inferior education or a sea change in the exchange of information? Are those who stand by the written/printed word themselves flirting with irrelevance?

Adults hardly serve as models of literary consumption and analysis: the average American adult reads only one book, fiction or otherwise, per year, and "Only slightly more than one-third of adult males now read literature." While literary knowledge hardly determines intelligence, those who pay at least some degree of attention to creative writing are demonstrably more informed about culture and politics in some seemingly contradictory ways:

"Literary readers are much more likely to be involved in cultural, sports and volunteer activities than are non-readers."

Young readers more often play sports? Strange but increasingly relevant, especially when considering that reading rates have fallen furthest among the youngest Americans. So what occupies the time of that near-majority who abstain, by choice, from reading "literature" for pleasure? In short, television and the internet. The presence of children online continues to expand, with social networking sites popping up for use by those as young as six. These (hopefully) less explicit counterparts to MySpace and Facebook quickly groom kids for virtual life, allowing them easy access to the electronic tools without which socialization may begin to become more difficult. Unfortunately, in a display of how little behaviors change with circumstances and technologies, educators acknowledge the rapid expansion of cyber-bullying: an easier and more anonymous method of teasing, intimidation and insults that, in the minds of many teachers, threatens to directly disrupt classroom cohesion. The possibility for disunity allowed by the easy ability to make largely untraceable derogratory statements is frightening for grade-school students. Reports have surfaced of shockingly young children posting humiliating videos and commentary about teachers and classmates, and educators in Canada went so far as to call this trend "the number one non-academic problem facing classrooms today."

For all the talk of preparing children to enter and compete in an increasingly tech-dominated world, moderation appears to be the key: independent studies label TV and web-addicted kids as greedy, materialistic, inattentive, and rude, naming aggressive advertising as the major element reponsible for fostering low self-esteem and cynicism. Does sitting in front of a screen for hours each day turn a child into an abusive bully who disregards behavioral norms? In a recasting of the classic bad-parenting vs. environment issue, one wonders how much of the blame for behavioral problems could be aimed directly at the pixelated screen.

In another, more encouraging sense, people read more today than they ever have before, but most of the material consumed is much more concise than the average novel or historical tome: magazines, newspapers, tabloids and web sites like this one. The fact that children are attracted to the endless content and easily accessed social webs that make up the internet is not surprising, and the decline in readership clearly signals a shift toward other forms of information-sharing. Still, television is a notoriously unreliable narrator, and the selective viewing of the web allows for total escapism by choice. At the risk of sounding stuffy, we can assert that it certainly wouldn't hurt the vast majority of Americans to read a little more, exploring, for example, the fascinating and extensively documented history of their own society or considering the possibilities of fiction beyond the adventures of a magical British teen. They might actually like it. Reading in any form is an interactive, stimulating experience, and time invested in the practice can bear ample rewards.

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