Suzanne Fields

The medium is the message, the texts are on television, and the Internet is awash in words, but fewer than half of Americans over 18 are actually reading "literature." The sound byte has replaced poetry, punditry has replaced the novel, and everything is a short story. Very short.

The invention of the printing press changed civilization. Johann Gutenberg's famously moveable type elevated the aspirations of all men and women, regardless of class and status, to learn to read the great books. Within a few centuries, great writing was available to anybody who wanted to read it.

High tech, by contrast, has rewired appetites to disdain or ignore the imaginative.

In a depressing new report called "Reading at Risk," the National Endowment for the Arts offers proof, as if we needed it, that we are no longer a nation that reads fiction, poetry and drama for pleasure. We will pay a very high price for this.

The most spectacular decline is among young men and women. These are the students who have been all but drowned in "relevance," political correctness and multiculturalism, beginning in the lower grades. Teachers pander to their personal "needs" and "values" rather than inspiring them to achievement and excellence. It hasn't worked. In 1982, nearly 60 percent of Americans between 18 and 24 read literature. That figure has dropped to 40 percent. The surveyors did not examine the category of fine nonfiction writing.

There are many reasons why our young have come to disdain what Matthew Arnold described as the best that's been thought and taught in the world, but foremost among them is the way our culture has been politicized. We've watched while standards and criteria for appraising literary quality are not-so-gradually eroded.

Once upon a time our political leaders were well-read and enjoyed a common heritage. This is evident in the writing of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. The letters written home by Civil War soldiers, many of whom had not finished grade school, reflected a knowledge of the Bible, of the classics, even of Shakespeare. In our own time, colleges required and produced well-rounded undergraduates. The self-taught man was encouraged, too. Harry Truman barely finished high school, but he was among our best-read presidents.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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