3. Read My Lips

The subway is a laboratory where reading habits may be observed daily. As it dips under and rises above ground, it travels between the textual and the streaming worlds. When the F train surfaces above Gowanus Canal, cell phones ring, and people check their messages. For two stations, it becomes slightly harder to focus on your book, to shut out the world by mere will power. (Earplugs, here and everywhere, are the contemporary intellectual’s vade mecum. Don’t leave the house without your bits of foam.) Then the train dives again, and it’s more quiet.

About a year ago, I noticed a woman on the subway moving her lips while reading a Harry Potter book. I admired her bravery—her New York insistence on having her pleasure no matter how it might look. But it brought home to me that fewer and fewer people read without effort. Once I started to look for them, people who read while moving their lips turned out not to be that rare. Usually the motions of the mouth muscles aren’t full; you most often see just a faint rhythmic tremor in the lips. Sometimes looks deceive, and what you’re actually watching is a person reading silently while lip-synching a song that’s playing on his iPod.

Here’s the rub: Lately I’ve noticed that I do it, too. If I hit a dry sentence or a dense one, and a conversation near me is seeping through my earplugs, I mouth the words on the page. It helps me focus. Maybe it’s a sign of incipient mental decay. Maybe I’ve lip-synched to my iPod so often lately that lip-synching to my book feels natural. Or maybe it’s not possible to fix your attention on text while something viva voce is distracting you, unless you do something to bring the text into the fleshly world.

Here’s another instance where I’ve caught myself not just moving my lips but even reading snippets aloud: In the last year or so, even websites as highbrow as the New York Times have started running ads that move. It’s very hard to read the deliberately neutral prose of the Times while a brightly colored image is flashing and whirling in a box embedded in the same column. I go through phases of deactivating Java and Flash, but I always relent and return the keys to them, because of some interactive map or chart I’d like to see. When the web was young, it was possible to surf it in text-only browsers like Lynx. No longer. A couple of weeks ago, I downloaded a clip of Jon Stewart berating Tucker Carlson, which I had missed because we don’t have television. I enjoyed the confrontation, but it occurred to me that I had taken another step away from text, that I was learning a new habit, acceding to the internet’s probably inevitable progression from a textual to a streaming medium. The web now resembles a collection of magazines, but it seems likely to me that in a decade it will resemble a collection of television channels.

If you sit at one of the tables with internet access in the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library, you discover that something about having internet access seems to license people to answer their cell phones. People at the internet-deprived tables are much less likely to answer a call.

A few years ago, Microsoft commissioned a study of reading, in order to figure out why people are reluctant to take on more than a thousand words or so at a time on the web. It’s one of those reports that goes to some length to state something that used to be obvious. Apparently there’s something called “immersive reading,” where people are capable of sitting still for two or three hours, absorbed, forgetting the merely physical processes of eye movements and page turnings that convey the contents into their brains. (“We never do anything well,” says Hazlitt, “till we cease to think about the manner of doing it.”) Almost everyone I know takes this experience for granted, but the statistics I wrote about yesterday suggest that we shouldn’t. Fewer people, it seems, have the appetite or aptitude for immersive reading. It seems to be losing ground to interactive and streaming media.

2. Decline? What decline?

Some of the most literate people I know have written that the decline in reading in America has been exaggerated and is unworthy of serious concern. The July 2004 report on reading by the National Endowment for the Arts came in for a lot of this pooh-poohing. None of the pooh-poohing convinces me.

The NEA found that the proportion of American adults who had read any work of imaginative literature in the preceding year declined as follows:

1982 1992 2002
56.9% 54.0% 46.7%

These numbers are dismaying, and the deeper you go into them, the worse the news is. First, note that not only has the percentage of literary readers declined but the rate of loss has accelerated. Second, if you break these numbers down by age cohort and by education, you discover that the decline obtains in all categories. In other words, every age group read less in 2002 than it did a decade before. If you look at the age charts and read them diagonally—that is, if you track the reading patterns of a single age cohort through time, instead of comparing, say, twenty-four-year-olds of 2002 to twenty-four-year-olds of 1992—the numbers also decline. Fewer forty-year-olds read literature today than did thirty-year-olds a decade ago, and those who do read, read fewer books.

The most common retort to this bad news focuses on the NEA’s definition of literature, which excludes nonfiction and graphic novels, among other genres. This might be an answer, if there were reason to believe that there is a large, new group of people who over the course of a year read literary nonfiction but scrupulously avoid reading any novels, poems, short stories, or plays. I doubt there are very many such people who are really new—that is, for whom there was no corresponding population in 1982 or 1992. But even if there is such a sizable new population, the NEA’s data show that they cannot be affecting the overall decline in reading by very much. In 1992 and 2002, the NEA also asked respondents whether in the previous year they had read any book. The answer:

1992 2002
60.9% 56.6%

In other words, the ratio of people reading any book at all also declined. The dropoff is not as steep as that in literary reading, but there is no insulation from the bad news in the notion that people are reading John Adams biographies instead of Jonathan Franzen novels.

Nor is it any defense to note that the decline has been lamented for a long time, and that despite the alarm, the culture has survived. It is true that there is little chance that reading will ever go extinct. Nothing suggests that novels will abruptly cease to be published. But a shift away from literature might still produce a qualitative change in the culture. It is not necessary for a change to be total in order for it to be significant.

Nor is it any defense to say that there have never been very many serious readers in any culture, in raw numbers, so it’s no surprise that as the population expands, the percentage of readers declines. Or, a corollary of this, to say that the raw number of book-purchasing readers remains high, and the publishing industry still puts out a high volume. In a democracy, where every adult citizen may vote, it’s the proportion of readers, not their raw number, that is likely to affect the political culture.

The NEA’s numbers—and those in the Pew Research Center’s similar report on newspaper readership, published a couple of years ago—suggest that a tipping point has been reached. Text is no longer the first way that most Americans learn about their world or imagine their world. Since the advent of television, we have been moving from a textual culture to a streaming culture, but some dam broke in the last half-decade, and the changes have been accelerating. At some point, once we have reached a new equilibrium point, the acceleration will stop. We will then be living in a different world.

1. Blame

It’s John Kerry’s fault. It’s Gavin Newsom’s fault. It’s the Democratic Party’s fault. It’s the fault of the New York Times. None of this is so, though of course it would be satisfying to find a scapegoat. Over at n+1, Ben Kunkel has argued, much more plausibly, that it’s the fault of the people who voted for Bush. They are, he points out, adults.

Still, there’s a widespread sense that this result isn’t just bad news, that it has to be explained. There’s been a rash of speculation about how to put the results in historical context. In particular, people seem newly fascinated with the eternal problem of how political parties correspond to one another and to themselves across time. Does the Republican party of George W. Bush have anything to do with the Republican party of, say, Parke Godwin? (Who? Yes, exactly.) A lot of this is cartographical. Which earlier map does the map of the 2004 election most resemble: free states vs. slave states in 1860 (neato mouse-over version here), the 1896 contest between William McKinley vs. William Jennings Bryan (map here), or, somewhat less persuasively, Woodrow Wilson vs. Charles Evan Hughes in 1916? Others prefer maps with non-historical correlations. Princeton’s Robert J. Vanderbei has put put together a map that displays both voting results and population broken down by county, and in a chart for the 2000 election, someone has correlated college education and Gore vs. Bush votes.

It’s my suspicion that if you could map by state the data contained in this report by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, you might find something even more interesting. Unfortunately, it’s beyond my abilities as a research geek to figure out how to extract that information from their dataset, even though it’s publicly available. My short answer is this: reading, as a means for understanding the world, is in precipitous decline in America, both in newspapers and in books. I think we are living through a shift in the culture that has been lamented, minimized, ignored, and explained away. It needs, however, to be understood.

Code Pink

I want to share some very frightening news with you. Not more than an hour ago, in a park nearby, I ate a hummus sandwich. It was prepared for me by my boyfriend. I know that most Americans will find this more frightening than any policy memos setting forth a legal framework for torture, which the Bush Administration may have asked its lawyers to prepare. But I thought I should tell you anyway.

What’s worse, my boyfriend made another such sandwich for me on Tuesday. I don’t know about you, but this is sort of thing that scares many people a lot more than the idea that the United States traffics undocumented prisoners seized in Iraq to and from Guantanamo Bay in defiance of the Geneva Convention. My boyfriend did not make such a sandwich for me between Tuesday and today, because we were temporarily out of cucumbers. How can anyone feel safe? Polls show that people find these details much more terrifying than the fact that our President and Vice President lied about what they knew about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in order to persuade the public to support their war.

Even worse, my boyfriend deliberately chose a brand of pita bread that did not contain high fructose corn syrup. I hope the American public will be able to remain as calm in the face of this news, as they did when confronted with a campaign of lies insinuating that the Saddam Hussein regime was behind the attack on New York and Washington that took place on 11 September 2001. I trust they will be able to distinguish false alarms from real danger.