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The author Tracy Gayle uttered some frightening words the other day: Nobody reads anymore, she said. They have their phones in front of them. She is in position to see this literary loss far more clearly than most of us: She teaches kids to read for her living and tries to sell the novels she writes for her soul.
As reality-pounding as that assessment was, it was only the last of a series of jackhammers that have cracked my soul in recent days.
A woman from a loan company called to ask about an item that had been published in the newspaper. Could she purchase a copy? I told her the back issues were the same price as the new ones. “Oh, I never buy the paper,” she said.
Another woman called about a photograph of her daughter that had appeared in the Sports section, she had heard. She wanted to see and acquire the photograph. Her daughter is a talented athlete. “I guess I’ll have to start getting the paper,” she said.
Scary words, these, particularly right here in a week during which we celebrate newspapers.
You’ve heard stories about the diminishing market for newspapers, seen what corporate owners have done to their institutions and perhaps even understand that one of the hands is being removed from what historically has been our country’s great moral compass, marginalizing what has been the guardian of your rights and the watchdog for your community.
And, you know, it’s not so much that newspapers are old technology filled with thousands of words in a non-dynamic format. That’s not really the problem.
No, what we have is a society, as Gayle said, that doesn’t want to read.
She might have added that they don’t talk to each other, either, preferring abridged – some might even suggest “bastardized” – language on hand-held screens.
Or that they don’t care about the news unless it’s spoken to them by a source with whom they are ideologically aligned. Takes too much dog-gone effort to pick up a page or two of anything and read a few hundred words. Heck, it might take 15 minutes and require a little surrounding quiet for concentration. No, everyone wants to invest their “reading time” in a few characters of social media rather than paragraphs, pages and paeans.
To me this is the saddest sentence in this story. By not reading, we as a populace really are losing our ability to think. In school we always dreaded writing research papers because many hours were required to create all those pages on a complex subject, but the idea was not so much the words we wrote that taught us but that we understood how to consume information and spit it back out in a useful and thoughtful format.
We do that every day, and that is what we are losing. That is why some newspapers struggle.
If I were a teenager today and approaching this issue as I did when I was a teen, I would have “NERD” stamped on my forehead, eat lunch alone daily and probably get pushed around on the bus.
I have read a newspaper since I was about 8 years old. I’ve consumed hundreds of books (many multiple times) and thousands of magazines. In my youth, every other week brought a visit by the Bookmobile to our school – even in the summer – and to me that was a little visit from a Santa.
But how many of our kids would be at the library if there weren’t games, prizes, face painters and animated storytellers there to “tell” them about books? How many of our children would bother to pick up a volume of anything and immerse in the words to the point that their minds develop along with their memorization of the words? Unless they were being forced, of course.
Sure, we all had reading assignments we didn’t want to complete. And I am the first to disclose that my grades might have been better had I not been enamored more with fiction than the facts that we were supposed to absorb. Even today self-help and instructional non-fiction are not my style, though I’ve found them useful at times to help me understand life its ownself, to borrow another great title.
Today, I am, as my age suggests, a dinosaur in development. But if I have been a Tyrannosaurus of reading, I soon will be a puddle of enlightened if not intellectual goo – which I fear is what will become of our children’s minds if they don’t realize the value of reading. And I search the landscape in search of a any strand of hope. Maybe I found one.
On Saturday night, while her mother and I watched a documentary, our daughter sat at our dining room table not playing with the iPad or talking to Furby or adding to her portfolio as a refrigerator Rembrandt.
No, she had with her a stack of books, and as I went to look over her shoulder, she intently was reading every word of some complex subjects.
She is 6 and in first grade.
Here’s what she told her mother about one of the books.
“It says a caterpillar has 16 legs,” she said. “And I know that’s true because I saw one on the playground and counted them.”
Reading. Thinking. Learning.