Reading in the 21st Century
By C. Ikehara
``The art of letters will come to an end before A.D. 2000. I shall survive as a curiosity.'' ― Ezra Pound.
A bit premature, perhaps, but that quote comes to mind as I come across more and more articles reporting on the decline of reading.
That situation is not limited to the United States. A few years ago, a New York Times article quoted a Japanese professor of literature and prominent book critic as saying, ``In Japan, literature is no longer mainstream culture.''
Once upon a time, one could look into any Japanese train and expect to see people doing one of two things: either sleeping or reading. But today, one sees commuters preoccupied with portable electronic games, digital assistants and cell phones that enable them to send e-mail and surf the Net.
That article also included the observation of a Japanese publishing industry expert: ``The way to success in this business is in writing easy-to-read books, with short sentences, lots of slang and easy plots.''
``The decline in literature indicates a decline in the nation. The two keep pace in their downward tendency,'' said Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Does this mean that ``writers'' will someday be spending all their time churning out gossipy articles about the latest young rising movie star or pop singer? Or will they be putting in a lot of overtime ``writing'' the captions of oversized color photos of beauty pageant winners?
Could articles ever be ``easy'' enough, or will visuals eventually ``triumph'' over text? Will readers begin thinking that they exist only to be entertained and start thinking that something must be horribly wrong if they find themselves getting bored ― for even half a second?
``Life nowadays goes at a gallop; and the way in which this affects literature is to make it extremely superficial and slovenly,'' Arthur Schopenhauer said.
In the past, wasn't there a greater emphasis on reading because it was felt to promote critical thinking _― not only teaching the necessity of sorting fact from fiction, distinguishing the true from the false, and recognizing the possible from the impossible, but also preparing us for tough moral choices that had to do with making a clear distinction between right and wrong, differentiating the innocent from the guilty, and ultimately recognizing good from evil?
``Reading expands the minds of children … It allows us to use our imagination and helps us develop our critical thinking skills.'' Rep. Phill English (R-Pa.) said.
``The supreme end of education is expert discernment in all things ― the power to tell the good from the bad, the genuine from the counterfeit, and to prefer the good and the genuine to the bad and the counterfeit,'' said Samuel Johnson.
And unless we go on to promote what is right, to protect the innocent, and to preserve the good, won't they eventually be driven out by the wrong, the guilty and the evil?
``To enjoy the things we ought and to hate the things we ought has the greatest bearing on excellence of character,'' Aristotle said.
And whatever happened to cultural continuity? Electronic diversions might be great for economic good times, but don't traditions provide us with the values and inner strength necessary to persevere and cope with the bad times?
Wasn't serious reading thought to be a tradition of traditions since the lessons and values learned from the teachers of literary masterpieces served as a bridge between the generations?
Didn't the transmitted wisdom of the ages gained from being taught the classics encourage us to contemplate philosophical questions pertaining to the way of human nature, the way of the world and the meaning of life?
``The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency ― the belief that the here and now is all there is,'' Allan Bloom said.
``In science, read by preference the newest works. In literature, read the oldest. The classics are always modern,'' Lord Edward Lytton said.
Isn't anyone not doing all they can to preserve traditions, in effect hastening their demise? Aren't we neglecting our literary heritage because of our preoccupation with gadgets and our obsession with money?
``Modern man is frantically trying to earn enough to buy things he's too busy to enjoy,'' Frank A. Clark said.
Has the unbridled spread of commercialism and technology transformed us from small groups of active amateur participants and involved citizens to a large single mass of professional passive spectators and nonstop consumers?
Will future generations no longer concern themselves with such issues because their ability to read and think critically (or even clearly) will be long gone?
``How fortunate for leaders that men do not think,'' Hitler said.
C. Ikehara is a freelance writer. He has been a librarian for over 10 years. He received his master's degree in library science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He can be reached at email@example.com.