Reading to understand each other
By Jim Poling
Published Feb. 16, 2017
The number of Canadians who say they read books is continuing to drop. That’s not good news because reading books is known to make us better informed citizens while increasing our understanding of others.
Booknet Canada reports that its surveying shows that the reading of print books dropped two per cent last year. EBook reading was down four per cent over the previous year, and audiobooks down two per cent.
Reading a book placed fourth when people were asked about their top leisure activities. No. 1, of course, was Internet browsing (39 per cent – down five per cent from the year before), followed by time with the family (34 per cent), watching TV (33 per cent). Reading was 21 per cent.
Seventy per cent of people surveyed said they rarely participate in a book club or a reading group. That number increased by six per cent over the previous year.
Sort-of-good-news comes from the United States. Gallup.com polling found that, despite all the digital diversions, the percentage of Americans reading books is roughly the same as 15 years ago. However, the number who say they read no books in the last year was 16 per cent, double the number from 1978 when Gallup first asked that question.
These numbers confirm the feeling that the general depth of knowledge of North Americans is becoming more and more shallow. Too little time for much literate reading, and too much time on the Internet, where information abounds but too often in quick hit form.
Much of our reading these days is aimed at making us better worker bees, not necessarily more literate citizens.
You get a better idea of this when you look at political leaders. More and more of them appear to be people who accumulate knowledge in briefings and in reading reports and dossiers rather than books.
The most recent exception, of course, is Barack Obama, who told the New York Times last month that during his eight years as president, books allowed him to slow down and gain perspective.
“At a time when so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify — as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize — is more important than ever,” he told the Times.
His successor, the worrisome Donald J. Trump, is the complete opposite. He has said he does not need to read books because he already knows a lot and because he has good business ability and common sense.
Another president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, once said: “A book is the most effective weapon against intolerance and ignorance.”
Canadian leaders these days are not known as bibliophiles. Justin Trudeau was a substitute teacher for a while, but not much has been recorded about his reading habits, except than he does read mean tweets about himself. He does have a bachelor of arts degree in literature.
The best known connect between Stephen Harper, the former prime minister, and books is author Yann Martel who sent him a different book every two weeks. Why the best-selling novelist did that is not totally clear, except that Martel said politicians’ reading habits matter because “in what they choose to read will be found what they think and what they will do.”
Kevin O’Leary, the front-runner in the Conservative leadership race, and therefore a potential prime minister, has an interesting reading history. As a child in Montreal he had dyslexia, which left him struggling with reading and basic mathematics.
O’Leary was helped by an experimental class at McGill University. He went on to become a venture capitalist, and later a celebrity investor on the TV show Shark Tank and CBC’s Dragon’s Den. He has produced recommended reading lists, and has written books, but all are about getting ahead in business.
Yann Martel’s little game with Harper was weird and unfocussed, but he is bang on with his view that knowing what our leaders read tells us what they think and what they will do.
And, as Harry Truman, another U.S. president, once said:
“Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.”