"To read, or not to read, that is the question." This was the question posed by the National Endowment for the Arts for a national study about reading habits. The endowment found such a sharp decline of reading that few Americans could recognize Shakespeare's antecedent for the question. If he's awake, somewhere Hamlet is spinning.
Not only are teens and adults reading less, absorbing with shorter attention spans, they're posting diminishing test scores at almost every reading level. Only 9-year-olds are showing better scores, but those are likely to evaporate by the time they're seniors in high school.
Gender gaps abound, and in this one, boys are bested by girls, who score 13 points higher than the boys in the 12th grade. There's more at work here than an inability to sit still. In comparisons with 31 industrial nations, our 15-year-olds rank behind those in Poland, Korea, France and Canada, among others. Poor reading spills over into levels of academic achievement. Poor readers are more likely to drop out of school, are more difficult to employ and more likely to swell prison populations. One of the saddest findings in this report is that nearly half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 read no books for pleasure.
While the electronic media is undoubtedly partly responsible, it doesn't have to be that way. I've watched my grandsons, ages 8 and 11, read even more -- and eagerly hurry off to the public library for still more -- after a session with certain electronic games that stimulate their interest in Greek and Roman heroes and American history, particularly the battles of the Civil War and World Wars I and II. Their charter school requires reading homework every night -- for pleasure.
Several studies show that frequent Internet users read more books than those who don't use the Net. The Internet can satisfy an eager child's curiosity, enabling him to check a fact with a couple of clicks to a search engine such as Google, Yahoo or Dogpile.com.
But for all its value, the electronic media is a mixed blessing for readers, especially for those of us who still like holding paper in our hands, to scribble notes in the margins and slip a colorful bookmark between the pages. Is there anything more intellectually satisfying than to open a new book and sniff the perfume of freshly printed pages? We're becoming anachronisms in our own time, soon to be an extinct species as books of paper go the way of hand-illustrated manuscripts.