I recently read a very interesting article in Newsweek magazine. The author, Niall Ferguson, posits that too many people are spending their time texting and not reading. The statistics he cites are fascinating:
According to a survey carried out last year by Nielsen, Americans between the ages of 13 and 17 send and receive an average of 3,339 texts per month. Teenage girls send and receive more than 4,000.
Half of today’s teenagers don’t read books—except when they’re made to. According to the most recent survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, the proportion of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 who read a book not required at school or at work is now 50.7 percent, the lowest for any adult age group younger than 75, and down from 59 percent 20 years ago.
Back in 2004, when the NEA last looked at younger readers’ habits, it was already the case that fewer than one in three 13-year-olds read for pleasure every day. Especially terrifying to me as a professor is the fact that two thirds of college freshmen read for pleasure for less than an hour per week. A third of seniors don’t read for pleasure at all.
What happens when people stop reading books? Why is this important? Why should we care?
For two reasons. First, we are falling behind more-literate societies. According to the results of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s most recent Program for International Student Assessment, the gap in reading ability between the 15-year-olds in the Shanghai district of China and those in the United States is now as big as the gap between the U.S. and Serbia or Chile.
But the more important reason is that children who don’t read are cut off from the civilization of their ancestors.
Being an avid reader myself I try to encourage my own children to read (well, the one that can so far) as much as possible. I am addicted to reading personally. I try to read the Kindle edition of my local newspaper every day, Newsweek and Time magazine every week, technical and news websites during the day and as many books as I can fit in any other time. I also spend a significant amount of time monitoring my social network feeds and my extensive Google Reader habit.
The hook that caught my attention was the challenge at the end of this article:
So take a look at your bookshelves. Do you have all—better make that any—of the books on the Columbia University undergraduate core curriculum? It’s not perfect, but it’s as good a list of the canon of Western civilization as I know of. Let’s take the 11 books on the syllabus for the spring 2012 semester: (1) Virgil’s Aeneid; (2) Ovid’s Metamorphoses; (3) Saint Augustine’s Confessions; (4) Dante’s The Divine Comedy; (5) Montaigne’s Essays; (6) Shakespeare’s King Lear; (7) Cervantes’s Don Quixote; (8) Goethe’s Faust; (9) Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; (10) Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment; (11) Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
Order the ones you haven’t got today. (And get War and Peace, Great Expectations, and Moby-Dick while you’re at it.)
After looking at the list I saw several that I had read long ago, a few I tried and put down and a few I hadn’t had the pleasure of exploring. I’ve officially decided to take up the challenge. It may take me years to complete but I’m going to read every book listed above. I was able to download all of these classics to my Kindle in less than 20 minutes and for less than $10. That is a staggering statistic by itself. We have such quick, easy and cheap access to the great works of the Western world and instead we choose to play Angry Birds and send text messages. Man, I feel old just writing that sentence.
I’m taking the plunge. Why don’t you join me?