Titled "To Read or Not to Read," the report is a significant expansion of the NEA's widely cited 2004 study, "Reading at Risk." The NEA based that earlier study exclusively on data from its own arts surveys, and as a result, that analysis focused mainly on so-called literary reading -- novels, stories, plays and poems. This led some critics to downplay its implications.Sure. Who cares if people read literature -- so long as they can read warning labels, traffic signs, and how long to keep the fries in the deep fryer? I suppose critics -- those who get it -- will now complain that the title of the new report is drawn from "some famous work of literature by someone" and therefore biased toward reading, you know, like heavy stuff that makes you think or something.
While the reports authors won't outright blame technology for this shift, I will. A few generations ago, we didn't have the portability of Nintendo DS and PSP, so we can take our gaming anywhere, and at any rate, electronic gaming was nearly so advanced and encompassing as it is now. These days you can live your life -- or at least a life -- online (e.g. World of Warcraft, Everquest, to a lesser extent Sims). Not too many of us wanted to spend all of our free time jumping barrels and climbing ladders.
Cable and Satellite television have made incredible advances both in their offerings and their saturation; this weekend I was in northern New Jersey and nearly every house on every block had one of those little DirectTV dishes attached to the roof. Pay television service has approached the level of necessity for most people, something that is seen as nearly as fixed and important as paying the electric, heating, and water bills. At the same time as pay television has penetrated nearly every house in the country, the offerings have advanced beyond the twenty or thirty channels of a generation or two ago; now ESPN alone offers something like four channels, HBO has split into multiple offerings, and offerings that wouldn't have seemed viable several years ago are now among the most talked about (Food Network, for example). Several cartoon-only channels now cater to 18-35 year old stoner burnouts, while in many markets strange religious channels feature a nun talking quietly to the television camera.
It's in many ways a consumer's dream-life, with so many choices it's sometimes difficult to make a choice. Of course, choice in this case is relative, since the only real choice you are making is to spend your time watching television -- once you've made that choice, what you happen to be watching is immaterial. The medium, as McLuhan said, is the message.
So by and large, we are choosing not to read. We are not developing our literacy, but rather remaining stuck in a level of fluency that means we can get through life, maybe not as well as we like, but rather as well as we need to do it all over again tomorrow.
We are no longer hungry.