Descent into post-literacy
The 737-800 I am flying in just broke through 10,000 feet, the height at which the crew turns off the seat belt sign and makes the flight announcements.
“The bad news. . . ” says an authoritative and calm voice.
My heart jumps into my mouth. Obviously something catastrophic is about to happen.
An engine has fallen off, or someone forgot to fill the gas tank or we are about the fly into a hurricane.
The voice continues. “The bad news today is that there is no WiFi on this flight.”
Moans, groans and the odd swear word drift through the cabin. This is indeed a catastrophe. Without the internet, passengers will be forced to find other ways of filling the time. Perhaps even read a book.
I stand up and stroll the aisle to stretch my legs. There are close to 200 folks on this plane and I observe that maybe three or four are reading a book.
My unofficial impromptu survey fits with what I have been reading about how people spend their leisure time.
Booknet Canada, a non-profit organization that helps the book industry in a variety of ways, has surveys showing that the number of Canadians who read books continues to decline.
An April 2018 BookNet survey shows that reading now ranks fourth as a Canadian leisure time activity. Twenty-one per cent of survey respondents said reading is their favourite way of spending free time. Other ways are time with family 27 per cent, watching TV 26, browsing the Internet 24, watching a movie 18 per cent.
Not surprisingly the situation in the U.S., which is led by a man who does not read, and perhaps doesn’t know how to read, is worse.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported recently that the number of Americans who read for pleasure has hit a record low. Only 19 per cent of Americans surveyed said they read for pleasure.
The deeper you dig into U.S. surveys the more shocking the statistics become. Thirty-three per cent of American high school graduates never read another book after leaving high school. Forty-two per cent of college grads never read another book after college. And, 70 per cent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
All this statistical evidence leads some folks, me included, to worry that North American society is becoming a post-literate culture.
The decline in book reading, however, should not be definitive evidence of a decline in literacy. People are reading electronically and there is a tendency to believe that reading from a screen is simply “playing on the computer.”
A wealth of good reading is available through computers. There is a question, however, about whether it is as focused, and therefore as thought-provoking, as book reading.
Reading on a computer, whether it be desktop, tablet or smartphone, is subject to regular interruption. Beeps and dings from social media are constant, as are notifications from companies trying to promote or sell something.
The greatest evidence of declining literacy, in my opinion, is found in listening to and reading the comments of people commenting on important subjects.
Much of what you hear today on radio and TV talk shows or read in newspaper and social media comment sections is unintelligent rant. Quick hit polemics from tongues not connected to any form of self discipline or critical thinking.
Years of book reading helps us to develop good thought processes, and to ask questions that will help us be better informed. Reading books also is a pathway into history, which holds innumerable lessons on how communities and societies are shaped.
Recent studies in Norway and Britain have concluded that collective IQs have been getting lower over the last 50 years. Changes in lifestyles, such as changes in education systems, less reading and more video games, were given as possible reasons for the decline.
It is hard to accept that despite all the innovations of the modern era, people generally are becoming dumber by the decade. But there are days, especially after listening to a lot of political discourse, that you shake your head and mumble to yourself about being surrounded by idiots.