The decline of reading causes a decline in thinking, which in turn impairs social and political participation

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.
–Joseph Addison.

The number of newspaper readers is plunging by the millions in most countries, including Canada and the United States. This decline is driven by the hundreds of metro dailies that have been forced to close, merge, or drastically reduce their size or frequency. In Canada, even the big-city papers that still survive, including the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun, and the Montreal Gazette, have had their paid circulations — and thus their editorial staffs — sharply reduced, some nearly by half.

This massive loss of readers and revenue has led in Canada to the concentration of media ownership (including TV and radio networks) in the hands of a few large conglomerates. This kind of monopoly leads to a much lower standard of news coverage. As Dale Eisler at the Johnson Shoyama School School of Public Policy puts it, “They are not terribly interested in news quality because that is not their priority. Newspapers they deem not profitable, or not profitable enough, are simply closed. . . There is then a loss of local news, and owners are also reducing foreign bureaus, again limiting news resources.”

Eisler is concerned that the decline in newspapers seems to be associated with a decline of reading, and therefore a decline in democracy. He quotes Thomas Jefferson’s famous declaration that, “If I were faced with a choice between government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I would choose the latter.” Eisler fears that, today, two-and-a-half centuries later, “Jefferson’s choice might actually be tested.”

Did illiteracy help Trump win?

That test may actually have occurred during the 2016 presidential election in the United States that was won by Donald Trump. Most of his millions of followers are unlikely to be habitual readers of anything other than the rants of right-wing fanatics on the Internet, and hence incapable of thinking objectively. Or thinking at all. Hillary Clinton referred to them as “deplorables” – an unfortunate slur that cost her many votes. Had she instead called most of them “deplorably misinformed,” it would have been more accurate and less politically damaging.

Not all of Trump’s supporters lack intelligence. But it’s safe to assume that most of them rarely read a book or even a newspaper. Instead, they derive their “news” and views from right-wing ideological sources that tend to reinforce their ignorance – notably Trump’s own daily outpour of mendacious tweets.

According to an article in Maclean’s magazine by Jonathan Gatehouse, “the United States is being overrun by a wave of anti-science and anti-intellectual thinking.” Polls in the U.S. have found that:

  • only 28% of Americans read 11 or more books in a year, and 28% proudly admit to not reading even one;
  • 42% still believe that all life on Earth was created by God instead of by evolution;
  • 51% reject the scientific assessment that the universe started with a “big bang” 14 billion years ago and that our planet has existed for more than 4 billion years;
  • only 33% believe scientists are right in declaring that global warming is “man-made,” while the majority regard it as merely a recurring natural development.

These fanatical Trump supporters have failed to enrich their minds with the enlightenment that only reading can furnish. They could be said to have “blank brains” on which the most erroneous and regressive beliefs can be imprinted by right-wing propagandists.

It may be overly simplistic on my part to attribute Trump’s victory to a decline of reading among American voters, but I do think it can be considered one of the deciding factors.

From print to digital

Some analysts of the decline in reading take a less gloomy view than I do. They claim that, although fewer people read newspapers, two-thirds or more of them still read books. That view seems to be ratified by the fact that more books are being published today than previously.

But are all these books actually being read? “Not, in many cases, from cover to cover,” according to Mitchell Stephens, a journalism professor at New York University. He cited a Gallup Poll that found many books were being bought to be consulted, skimmed, displayed to impress friends, or given as gifts, rather than to be thoroughly read. “Many more people say they are currently reading a book, but far fewer can say they have completed a book in the past week,” Stephens observed.

Granted, his op-ed and the poll it cites date back several years, but the detrimental reading trends identified at that time have undoubtedly intensified in recent years — and this despite the big upsurge in digital communications. Reading computer blogs, e-mails, Facebook gossip, and short “tweets” does not in any way compensate for the decline in reading good books, either fact or fiction. Such hi-tech trivia does not provide the kind of informative reading that engages the mind, the spirit, or the imagination.

Granted, there are some excellent on-line journals and websites that provide a wide range of reliable information and analysis. But are most adult Internet users now confining their scans to slanted partisan blogs that reinforce their prejudices? And, even more worrisome, is the big switch from print to digital driving a concurrent switch from reading to “surfing” among teenagers? There’s ample reason to be concerned about these socially harmful developments.

Reading tweets instead of books

Reading brief blogs, e-mails, Facebook gossip, and “tweets” does not in any way compensate for the decline in reading books,

For children, the addiction to TV, video games, texting, and other digital screens is alarming, especially for those who now seem to have a smartphone permanently attached to their ears.

As David Denby pointed out in an essay in the New Yorker, “millions of (pre-teen) kids have read the Harry Potter books, The Lord of the Rings, and other fantasy novels. But when they become 12 or 13, they often stop reading seriously. The boys veer off into sports or computer games, the girls into friendship in all its wrenching mysteries and satisfactions of favour and exclusion. . . Teenage time on screens has increased to the point where it takes over many young lives altogether.”

Denby warns that, “if the rest of us give up on book-reading without a fight, we will regret it, even be ashamed as the culture hollows out. I will put it tendentiously: Could a country that had widely read Huckleberry Finn have taken Donald J. Trump seriously for a second? Twain’s readers will remember ‘the king’ and ‘the duke.’ They know what a bullying con artist sounds like.”

Then there is the matter of how someone who is not a committed reader in youth will fare in later years, when entering the work force. Jerry Diakiw, a former school board superintendent in Toronto, contends that “engaged reading is the best predictor of who goes to university – regardless of socioeconomic background and parental education – and the best predictor of career options and life incomes.”

He says that regularly reading books, whether fact or fiction, develops adults with better social skills and higher levels of self-esteem. “The converse, especially for boys who are not engaged readers and spend long hours playing video games, is higher unemployment, dependence on social welfare, anti-social behaviour, and increased crime rates.”

Read to your kids

The greatest boon parents can give their children is to inculcate in them a love of reading at the earliest age, even before their first birthday. That means reading successively age-appropriate books to them until they become capable of reading on their own.

My mother taught me, and my four siblings, to read at an elementary level before we started kindergarten, and I have no doubt that, without that early pre-school tutoring, we would not have been nearly as successful in our later lives.

That instillation of an early love of reading has continued in the successive Finn families. The latest recipients of this precious gift are our nine-year-old grandson Garrett, now 9, and granddaughter Heather, 8. My wife Dena and I have enjoyed reading to them as they grew up, and now enjoy the added pleasure of having them read to us.

On its list of reasons why the reading habit is so important, an educational agency called ETL notes that reading expands vocabulary, increases the attention span, encourages a thirst for knowledge, prepares children for school, and instills a lifelong love of books.

Author Ursula Le Guin, who has also been pondering the lapse in reading, explains in a Harper’s essay the main difference between reading and watching television.

“Once you’ve pressed the TV button, the TV goes on, and on, and on, and all you have to do is sit and stare. But reading is active, an act of attention, of absorbed alertness. . . A book won’t move your eyes for you the way images on a screen can. It won’t move your mind unless you give it your mind, or your heart unless you put your heart into it. It won’t do the work for you. To read a story well is to follow it, to act it, to feel it, to become it – everything short of writing it, in fact. Reading is actual collaboration with the writer’s mind. No wonder not everybody is up to it.”

Keeping the mind active and involved through reading – inquiring, speculating, analyzing, inferring, projecting — is also believed by many scientists to guard against Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other forms of dementia.

The Nun Study

Dr. David Snowdon, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, was fascinated by the teaching nuns in the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who live much longer than average lives, many remaining active and alert into their 90s and quite a few living more than a century. They remain remarkably free from the degenerative diseases of senility. He visited and interviewed many of them, and was even given permission to dissect their brains after they finally died.

His book, published a few decades ago, is titled Aging with Grace: What the Nun Study teaches us about leading longer, healthier, and more meaningful lives.

One of his key findings was that attaining high linguistic ability in early childhood seems to protect against dementia. The nuns had all been taught to read – and to love reading – while still tots. One of Dr. Snowdon’s associates in the study, Dr. Susan Kemper, is a psycholinguist with specialized knowledge about the impact of aging on language skills. She measures a person’s “idea density” – the ability to comprehend, interpret, and process written language. The nuns’ cognitive abilities scored at a very high level.

After Dr. Snowdon’s book came out, he and Dr. Kemper were asked by many readers to explain the significance of these findings. Young parents in particular asked, “What does this mean for our children?”

Their answers were prompt and succinct: “It underlines the importance of reading to them. It’s that simple,” said Dr. Snowdon.

“Idea density depends on two essential learned skills: vocabulary and reading comprehension,” said Dr. Kemper. “And the best way to enhance these skills in your children is to start early in their lives to read to them.”

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