Writing Off the Wall

Posted: Nov 26, 2007 12:00 AM

"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.

Bill Hill, a researcher for Microsoft who knows what resistance there is to electronic books, points out their appeal to the ecologically conscious because the paper-and-ink process is "energy-wasting" and "resource-draining." Why chop down all those trees, to mash them into pulp for feeding noisy machines with mere paper? But it's unlikely that environmentalists will campaign to save the traditional book reader. We have none of the cachet of the snail darter.

Like it or not, the habit of reading is about to be revolutionized. A reader-friendly electronic device called Amazon Kindle might well do for books what the Internet has done for music and videos. Kindle is independent of the computer and uses wireless connections akin to those used by cell phone carriers rather than Wi-Fi hot spots. The delivery service is free. "The vision is that you should be able to get any book -- not just any book in print, but any book that's ever been in print -- on this device in less than a minute," Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, tells Newsweek magazine. "The baby boomers have a love affair with paper. But the next-gen people, in their 20s and below, do everything on a screen."

Traditionalists (like me) react with skepticism and fear of the sort that the monks must have felt, watching their beautiful manuscripts, with the illustrations meticulously done by hand, replaced by the printing press, staining pages with messy black smudges. But once such devices cost considerably less than the Kindle at $399 -- which is sure to come -- the Luddites among us will see there's no turning away from the future. We can envision and encourage a reading revival. The Kindle catalog contains 90,000 books, including many best-sellers, and sell for less than half the cover price at the chain bookstores. Classics cost even less.

Entire libraries are being digitalized, with information organized by categories, making it easier to find authors related to each other by theme, genre and historical era. Instead of asking the question, "To read or not to read?" we'll read new meaning into Miranda's speech in "The Tempest" (only two clicks away):

"How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,

"That has such people in't!"