Advanced communication is one of the achievements of human beings that sets us apart from the rest of the living world. To paraphrase one of my most influential college professors: “Language is what separates us from dogs and cabbage.” As humans, we have fairly sophisticated language skills that take the form of speaking, singing, gesturing, signing, etc. But other members of the animal kingdom possess forms of these skills too, and some of them have surpassed our own capabilities. What truly distinguishes us intellectually as a species is the higher brain function we have acquired, and I believe the best illustration of that gift is in written communication. The ability to pass along information from one person to another through writing was one of the hallmarks that transformed homo sapiens into civilized human beings and paved the way for rapid advancement. Sadly, literacy is a privilege that is terribly under appreciated in this country, especially when we consider that 774 million adults around the world cannot read or write. In the United States, most people over the age of fifteen can read and write at a very basic level, but we live in one of the most advanced countries in the world. Shouldn’t we expect much more than just basic written communication skills?
Most of us know that, in order to write well, we must read — a lot. To write better, we need to read more and read good writing (this is beginning to sound like a first-grade reader, in fact). I think it is at this crucial point that we fail. I am shining the light primarily on the United States, although this problem likely extends to a good portion of the developed countries around the world. In this country, the masses don’t spend much time reading at all. There are far too many other sources of information and entertainment available other than the written word. I am not referring to the Internet necessarily, because there is plenty of writing, and even good writing, available on the Web. Then again, the Web offers so many alternatives to writing also, which do present quite a distraction. I am certainly not referring to e-books either, which in spite of their dubious reputation in the eyes of some traditionalists and obsessive bibliophiles, are another source of writing.
So now let’s narrow it down to the folks who DO like to read. According to Pew Research Center, as of January 2014 some 76% of American adults ages 18 and older said that they read at least one book in the past year. The typical American reads about five books a year, which isn’t extremely impressive, but at least they’re reading . . . something. However, 24% of Americans don’t crack a book at all, and the number of non-book-readers has nearly tripled since 1978. Again, we have more distractions to pull us away from reading. As the comedian John Caparulo says in one of his more ridiculous routines, “Books suck! That’s why they invented movies. Who the hell reads?”
Now, before the 76% of American readers starts to get too cocky, I will make one final disturbing observation, and it relates to Caparulo’s point. Most Americans who read do so only for one purpose: to be entertained. Before going further, let me say that reading should be entertaining, but if reading is going to continue to raise us above the levels of dogs and cabbage, then what we read should do more than just entertain us. It should change us, challenge us, move us, and sometimes even call us to action. This standard not only applies to nonfiction — it goes for novels, short stories, poetry, and drama. The embarrassing truth is that far too many Americans judge the merit of a book by whether or not it has been made into a blockbuster movie. I would venture to say that the majority of people who went to see the movie The Color Purple when it came out in 1985 had not read the Pulitzer-prize winning novel by Alice Walker, but after seeing the movie praised the book as a masterpiece. One has to wonder if Gone with the Wind would still be the best-selling book of all time if it had not been made iconic by the motion picture that followed.
We have access through numerous vehicles to the world’s greatest works of literature — from ancient sacred texts to modern classics from various cultures. Why would we waste what little time we have in this life on anything less precious? Of course, I phrase that question knowing full well that I am guilty of seeking shallow entertainment all the time, but I have not forsaken the pursuit of fine literature in the process. We can have both. But, to spend a lifetime completely absent of serious writing seems to me such a tragic existence for a species with the mental capacity to appreciate it and pass it on to the next generation.