Decline and Fall and Fall and Fall

In our minds and in our cars: Technology killed the 'literary' reader—again

Now here's what the NEA chairman actually did say about electric lam . . . um, computers: "Although the news in the report is dire, I doubt that any careful observer of American society will be greatly surprised—except by the sheer magnitude of the decline . . . [accompanied by the rise of] video games and the Internet, [which] foster shorter attention spans and accelerated gratification." So insidious is this shortened attention span that it appears to have prevented Gioia from reading his own agency's report, since it explicitly notes that it found no such causality. Well, perhaps we can find evidence elsewhere. What about the world's most electronics-smitten country? Surely it'd be a harbinger of what's to come for the U.S.

Is reading big in Japan?

Since 1947 the Mainichi Shinbunsha newspaper company has performed an annual door-to-door Dokusho Yoron Chosa ("Public Reading Survey") on just this question. But their question, not reliant on telephone responses, also includes all forms of reading—fiction, nonfiction, manga, and periodicals alike. The result? Pollsters found that Japanese reading rates have risen in the last two decades.

The bicycle: No longer an enemy of reading
photo: Cary Conover
The bicycle: No longer an enemy of reading

And yet, as in the United States, Japanese cultural conservatives fret over dokusho-banare—a "detachment from reading." The latest culprit is the cell phone, since what little reading it entails involves thumbing away through execrable text-messaging shorthand. "Will any endure to read or write at all that delicate composition which we now call a letter, and not rather pervade the length and breadth of the country, each for himself, with a kind of running conversation—a continual communication of small gossip and detached thoughts—new clothes—new acquaintances—dinner parties, and bon mots?" asks one worried Japanese critic. "Can we suppose that the real antique letter will at all survive the revolution, and not be swept away in a flood of notes?"

Ah! I fear I have misplaced my date and author again. That quote was taken verbatim from British Critic magazine in 1842. They were fretting over the introduction of penny postage for letters. Conservatives must always have something to conserve, you see.

"Reading at Risk is not a report that the National Endowment for the Arts is happy to issue," Gioia insists. I'm not so sure of that. Gioia seems happy indeed to grind out the old hurdy-gurdy song of cultural decay, dolefully performed by codgers who believe that Reading is declining and falling, rather than merely Reading as They Knew It. What Gioia and centuries of soundalikes never seem to learn is that it does keep falling, but toward a cultural ground forever speeding away from underneath it. Art, it seems, is rather like a satellite—perpetually hurtling earthward, and yet curiously fixed in its orbit.

Paul Collins edits the Collins Library for McSweeney's Books. His latest book is Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism.

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