By 1995 -- before the flood of video games and computer entertainments for adults -- television swallowed 40 percent of Americans' free time, up one-third since 1965. Today electronic entertainments other than television fill 5.5 hours of the average child's day.
There have been times when reading was regarded with suspicion. Some among the ancient Greeks regarded the rise of reading as cultural decline: they considered oral dialogue, which involves clarifying questions, more hospitable to truth. But the transition from an oral to a print culture has generally been a transition from a tribal society to a society of self-consciously separated individuals. In Europe that transition alarmed ruling elites, who thought the ``crisis of literacy'' was that there was too much literacy: readers had, inconveniently, minds of their own. Reading is inherently private, hence the reader is beyond state supervision or crowd psychology.
Which suggests why there are perils in the transition from a print to an electronic culture. Time was, books were the primary means of knowing things. Now most people learn most things visually, from the graphic presentation of immediately, effortlessly accessible pictures.
People grow accustomed to the narcotic effect of their own passive reception of today's sensory blitzkrieg of surfaces. They recoil from the more demanding nature of active engagement with the nuances encoded in the limitless permutations of 26 signs on pages. Besides, reading requires two things that are increasingly scarce and to which increasing numbers of Americans seem allergic -- solitude and silence.
In 1940 a British officer on Dunkirk beach sent London a three-word message: ``But if not.'' It was instantly recognized as from the Book of Daniel. When Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are commanded to worship a golden image or perish, they defiantly reply: ``Our God who we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods. ...''
Britain then still had the cohesion of a common culture of shared reading. That cohesion enabled Britain to stay the hand of Hitler, a fact pertinent to today's new age of barbarism.
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