A novel proposal

The hype of America’s alleged illiteracy overlooks the realities of reading in the modern age.

Brian Reinken

Comment threads erupted after National Public Radio published an April Fools’ Day article titled “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?” Ironically, the article was a joke, a five-sentence story intended to reveal how many people would react without reading it first. Judging by the comments, the gag appears to have been moderately — and a bit dismayingly — successful.

If the title of NPR’s article provoked outcry, it may be because so many studies find that Americans are reading less than ever before.

The National Endowment for the Arts, the Pew Research Center and other organizations routinely examine the alleged downfall of literacy in modern America. The phenomenon’s severity varies depending on the source, but its outline is generally the same.

For example, the NEA reports that average American reading scores rank 15th among those of 31 industrialized nations. It also reports that the average American between the ages of 15 and 24 spends two hours per day watching television but only seven minutes reading.

Adjusted for inflation, moreover, the money that Americans spend annually on books dropped 14 percent between 1985 and 2005.

However, such studies often overlook the changing realities of literacy. While it may be true that fewer people are sitting down and reading novels cover to cover, this doesn’t mean that people aren’t reading anything at all. Reports that examine traditional, novel-centered reading ignore the beneficial effects of texting, e-books and the Internet on literacy.

The digital triad

We can’t restrict today’s literacy to reading novels. Instead, a broader definition of literacy could include any act of interpreting and composing written texts for the purpose of communication. From this perspective, new digital technologies don’t hamper literacy so much as they rejuvenate it.

For example, numerous studies have found that texting does not diminish children’s ability to spell. On the contrary, children who frequently send text messages demonstrate a greater understanding of phonics than those who don’t.

E-books, the second component of the digital triad, have wrought havoc on national bookstores such as Borders, which closed in 2011.

While the closure of bookstores is upsetting, e-books aren’t all bad news. A recent study suggests that they stimulate young children’s brains by providing a more tactile experience than traditional paper books. Because e-books more thoroughly engage the senses, readers stay attentive for longer periods of time.

Finally, there is the alleged menace of the Internet. But rather than viewing the Internet as an intellectual void, we should understand that it, too, is an invaluable tool for reading.

Thanks to the Internet, the sheer amount of text in the world has ballooned to fantastic proportions. Today, people enjoy instant access to newspapers, magazines and articles of all kinds. Even the most “useless” or “dumb” websites typically require their users to navigate through webs of text in order to access any content.

Moreover, while it’s undoubtedly true that some people do not use the Internet to read, it seems doubtful that these are the types of people who would spend much time reading even if the Internet didn’t exist. Avid readers, for their part, are unlikely to suddenly renounce their beloved words in favor of videos or computer games.

The role of reading

Studies that decry the loss of American literacy seem to presume that novels serve a function that other forms of written texts cannot satisfy. What, then, is the role of reading in society? Is it escapism? Enlightenment? Self-improvement? These things are not exclusive to “great” novels.

If people are spending less time reading “Moby Dick,” it may be because many of them have discovered something that interests them more. Capital-L “Literature” has never been widely accessible or popular.

As a University of Minnesota student and English major, I spend much of my time reading novels. That said, I did that even before I came to college — it’s just the type of person I am. At the end of the day, it’s difficult to force someone to enjoy reading, and it’s impossible to force everyone to enjoy “literature.”

This, ultimately, is why the digital revolution is so important to literacy. New technology allows people of all ages and backgrounds to connect and engage with texts of their choosing. In this way, reading becomes a more positive, more personal experience and less of a chore.

To be sure, novels have their place in society, and no newspaper or magazine article can replace a long book by Leo Tolstoy or Charles Dickens. To assume, however, that there is only one legitimate type of literacy is a grave mistake.

In the digital age, we must learn to embrace literacy in every form it takes.