The Death of Reading

By Jeff Wheeler

I studied Latin at San Jose State University under the stark tutelage of Professor Marianna Olcott, otherwise and affectionately known to the students as “The Evil Bunny”. Latin is an interesting language. For one, it’s a dead language, but that is not what makes it interesting. The study of Latin is probably as complex and difficult as studying physics or calculus. At least it was for me. It is chock-full of declensions, verbs, verb agreements, tenses (like the subjunctive and others too frightening to include in an M. Night Shyamalan movie), and other twisted and sadistic devices that it’s no wonder someone killed it. But I am not going to give you a Latin lesson in this article for fear you might not make it past this paragraph. Two things really stood out to me about studying Latin — well, there is a third if you count learning how to say ‘bite me’.

One of the things that struck me is how the Romans used to read. Sentences in Latin texts during Imperial Rome were constructed differently than most of us are used to. The verb was left at the end of the sentence. It made reading a little Yoda-like: across the river and over the fields of Albanon the stymied Celts with urine spiking their hair restlessly waited. The verb “to wait” was saved for the end. Professor Olcott explained that this created tension in the reading – what verb would be used? What tense of the verb would be used? Was this in the past? The future? What were the Celts doing there with their urine-spiked hair? Granted, the word “waited” is a bit anticlimactic but it set the context of the sentence. The reader had to get to the end of the sentence to know what was going on. Context was everything.
The other thing about Latin that struck me is that words are not always literal, especially the verbs. A Latin verb can have different meanings in different contexts. Imagine if the verb “to wait” (maneo) meant several different things. Actually, it does. It can also mean: to stay; to remain; to await; to pass the night; to abide by; to last; to endure. Now try interpreting the last sentence when the word the author used could have multiple meanings. Imagine translating not only that sentence but an entire book where every verb and practically every word had many nuances. Reading was a puzzle to be figured out. It was not a passive activity but an effort.

Earlier generations studied Latin in grammar school. In the United States, it was abandoned by most schools a long time ago. Probably because it was too difficult and teachers had a hard enough time getting kids to learn English effectively. As I mentioned, I didn’t study it until college and it was a freakishly difficult subject for me. I may not have picked it up gracefully, but I am glad I studied it. It gave new meaning on how to use language and it taught me not to take the past for granted.
This is why I was so alarmed by a recent report by the National Endowment for the Arts entitled “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.” The report basically concluded that the enjoyment of literature has been severely declining over the last twenty years in the USA. In fact, I would go a bit further. I would say the reading is dying in America. It is a sixty page report and I read it cover to cover. That’s one of the advantages of having studied history and gone to grad school. I actually developed the patience to slog through tediously long works and managed to wring out the big picture.

And so rather than bore you to tears rehashing it in depth, I will bore you to tears by giving you the key messages that jumped out at me. The messages that told me to wake up. The messages that said that if I don’t do something different, my kids will have just enough literary proficiency to read a Happy Meals carton.

Here are some statistics to frighten you (and I quote them almost verbatim, with a teeny bit of emphasis added for dramatic effect):

  • Less than half of the adult American population now reads literature (57% read literature twenty years ago, now it is 47%).
  • This ten percentage point decline represents a loss of 20 million potential readers.
  • Only one-third of adult American men read literature
  • Fifty-five percent of adult American women read literature (down from 63% twenty years ago)
  • The rate of decline is accelerating (-14% since 1992)
  • The higher the education rate, the higher the reading rate but reading among every educational level has declined seriously over the last twenty years

And to me, one of the scariest:

  • Over the past 20 years, young adults (18-34) have declined from the group most likely to read literature to the group least likely.

If this has piqued your interest to read the full report, you can access it on-line here:

 My teenage niece has borrowed quite a few books from my library of fantasy novels this summer. Recently, her family was over for a barbecue and my niece and I talked about some of our favorite genre books. It dawned on me during the conversation that she was at the age where I fell in love with Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, my first real addiction to high fantasy – the legacy of which is one of the reasons I helped produce Deep Magic all these years later. I loved the books. I loved the worlds they took me to. I loved not knowing how the books would end, and I loved reading them over again and picking up subtle details I had missed in my first frantic gobbling of the pages. And it terrifies me that twenty years from now, if these trends persist, the audience for fantasy fiction will have shrunk. That perhaps fewer authors will put stories to print, fewer dreamers will share their worlds with us, and we will have lost a bit of true magic in our world. The magic of imagination.

If I haven’t thoroughly depressed you yet – sit tight, there’s more.

The report also had some other interesting trends and implications regarding creative writing. Let me quote from the report again: “Contrary to the overall decline in literary reading, the number of people doing creating writing – of any genre, not exclusively literary works – increased substantially between 1982 and 2002. In 1982, about 11 million people did some form of creative writing. By 2002, this number had risen to almost 15 million people…an increase of about 30 percent.” Interestingly, the volume went up 30% but the percentage of the population doing creating writing remained the same at 7%.

I find this trend bizarrely interesting – people are reading less but writing more. Why? If there are more authors among us and fewer readers, that is the fastest way to glut the literary market. But very few of those who did any writing got published. The data showed that of only 1% (or two million people) were published in 2002. The remaining 6% (twelve million people) were not published. So, if you are an American citizen and have had a story published in Deep Magic, you could literally say you are one in a million. One percent is a discouraging number, isn’t it? And since fantasy and science fiction is a genre within the industry, we are an even smaller slice of that total pie.

Included in this study was a trend of those who took creative writing classes. As the previous section mentioned, the raw volume of people writing has increased. In contrast to this, the raw number of people taking creative writing lessons has decreased over the last 20 years. In 1982, about eighteen percent of the population had ever taken creative writing classes or lessons. By 2002, it had fallen to 13.3%, a drop in five percentage points.

This piece of data is even more disturbing to me as an editor. Writing is a craft. Very few people can do it well on an instinctive level. There are so many grammar rules, methods of characterization, plotting constraints, tension devices – it is not easy creating a voice that blends these all and will keep your reader awake for longer than ten minutes. I took just about every creative writing class I could at San Jose State and that was just enough training to get only one of my stories published. So it concerns me that more people are writing blindly, with no instruction at all. The internet makes it so easy to get published (blogs, anyone?). I have tracked our statistics here at Deep Magic since we started, and we reject around sixty percent of the submissions we get. I am confident that the larger fantasy magazines have an even higher rejection rate. I am also pleased at how many wonderful submissions we do receive each month – as you can tell if you have been reading us for a while, our stories are actually quite good considering we don’t pay our authors….yet (here’s to hoping next year’s fund drive is even better!).

There were other aspects of the study that interested me. For example, take the following quote: “Women are much more likely than men to be frequent readers: 22 percent of women, compared to 11 percent of men…those between 45 and 74 years of age tend to read the most books in a year. About one in five people in this age group is a frequent reader, compared to only one in ten people under 25. Frequent readers also tend to have high levels of education and family income.”

Does that means I’ll get richer if I read more books for fun? Wouldn’t that be nice.
The rise of technology has proven to be an effective lure in distracting people away from books. The study found a correlation in the decline of reading with increased activity in using the Internet, video games, and portable digital devices. Television, on the other hand, was not found to be a prime suspect in dragging people away from books.

And finally, reading has other effects of society that I had never realized. Literary readers, it turns out, make better citizens. The data correlated reading level to higher levels of volunteerism and charity work, attending sporting events, and being active participants in sports. Perhaps the reason for this is that reading actually gets us to “do” something in our lives while passively browsing the internet or blasting monsters in video games breeds a generally lazier version of ourselves.

I am afraid that the chief conclusion I had reading this report was that reading is dying in America, and perhaps around the world. It’s a slow death, certainly, and I have had a difficult time wondering what the eventual outcome will be. Will society twenty years from now look back at this e-zine as a quaint old-fashioned past-time? Will our children be so involved in the immediacy of the Internet and fast-paced media that they lose the ability to creatively or critically think? As I have watched the spread of “instant messaging” with all of its abbreviations (like: ploms … “parent looking over my shoulder” or “sup” and “n2m” – short for ‘what’s up’ and ‘not too much’), I wonder if the evolution of our language will become as dead as Latin is today. Instead of words with multiple meanings for, we’ll have meaningless words. Language itself will be truncated to gibberish.

Or am I being too skeptical here?

All I know is that the report offered me, as a parent, one tiny flickering of hope. My kids need to see me reading more. I need to set the example for them. And I don’t think a little lesson in Latin now and then will kill them either. Besides, I think they’d like to learn how to say “bite me.”

Cheers Prof Evil Bunny!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *