WASHINGTON -- The first modern celebrity -- the first person who, although not conspicuous in church or state, still made his work and life fascinating to a broad public -- may have been Charles Dickens. Novelist Jane Smiley so argues in her slender life of Dickens, and her point is particularly interesting in light of ``Reading at Risk,'' the National Endowment for the Arts' report on the decline of reading.
A survey of 17,135 persons reveals an accelerating decline in the reading of literature, especially among the young. Literary reading declined 5 percent between 1982 and 1992, then 14 percent in the next decade. Only 56.9 percent of Americans say they read a book of any sort in the past year, down from 60.9 percent in 1992. Only 46.7 percent of adults read any literature for pleasure.
The good news is that ``literature,'' as the survey defined it, excludes serious history, for which there is a sizable audience. The bad news is that any fiction counts as literature, and most fiction, like most of most things, is mediocre. But even allowing for the survey's methodological problems, the declining importance of reading in the menu of modern recreations is unsurprising and unsettling.
Dickens, a volcano of words, provided mass entertainment before modern technologies -- electricity, film, broadcasting -- made mass communication easy. His serialized novels seized the attention of the British public. And America's: ships arriving from England with the latest installment of Dickens' 1840 novel ``The Old Curiosity Shop'' reportedly were greeted by American dockworkers shouting, ``Did Little Nell die?''
When journalists in 1910 asked an aide to Teddy Roosevelt whether TR might run for president in 1912, the aide replied, ``Barkis is willin','' and he expected most journalists, and their readers, to recognize the reference to the wagon driver in ``David Copperfield'' who was more than merely willin' to marry Clara Peggotty, David's childhood nurse. Exposure to ``David Copperfield'' used to be a common facet of reaching adulthood in America. But today young adults 18-34, once the most avid readers, are among the least. This surely has something to do with the depredations of higher education: Professors, lusting after tenure and prestige, teach that the great works of the Western canon, properly deconstructed, are not explorations of the human spirit but mere reflections of power relations and social pathologies.
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.