Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The New Yorker: "Twilight of the Books"

For those of us who read for pleasure, there's a grim article in The New Yorker magazine titled Twilight of the Books. It analyzes the statistics on our national reading habits.
More alarming are indications that Americans are losing not just the will to read but even the ability. According to the Department of Education, between 1992 and 2003 the average adult’s skill in reading prose slipped one point on a five-hundred-point scale, and the proportion who were proficient—capable of such tasks as “comparing viewpoints in two editorials”—declined from fifteen per cent to thirteen. [Scary! I would of thought at least 20% of the population could do this.]
It also explores how our brains process written versus oral language.
Whereas literates can rotate concepts in their minds abstractly, orals embed their thoughts in stories. According to Ong, the best way to preserve ideas in the absence of writing is to “think memorable thoughts,” whose zing insures their transmission. In an oral culture, cliché and stereotype are valued, as accumulations of wisdom, and analysis is frowned upon, for putting those accumulations at risk. [Does this remind you of Orwell's 1984?]
It also wonders how a primarily oral/visual culture will differ from a literate one.
It can be amusing to read a magazine whose principles you despise, but it is almost unbearable to watch such a television show. And so, in a culture of secondary orality, we may be less likely to spend time with ideas we disagree with. Self-doubt, therefore, becomes less likely. In fact, doubt of any kind is rarer....A comparison of two video reports, on the other hand, is cumbersome. Forced to choose between conflicting stories on television, the viewer falls back on hunches, or on what he believed before he started watching. [Sounds an awful lot like "truthiness" to me: "truth that comes from the gut, not books."]
The article is a little dry and scholarly, not at all hysterical, but even so, it was hard for me to tap down a rising sense of panic as I read it. Still it's fascinating and well worth your time, providing much food for thought to those who are still literate.

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