Expressing his overwhelming faith in the civic responsibilities of the American people and commenting upon the political mess we are all in, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut recently proclaimed, “They’re not gonna read the book. They need to see the movie.”
Today, the average American reads 18 minutes per day. In this case, “average” can be misleading: 32 million Americans are functionally illiterate. Roughly one in four Americans has not read a book in the last year. For poor Americans, the number of non-readers rises to one in three.
In recent decades, public schools have focused reading instruction upon the rote memorization of whatever is necessary to excel on a standardized test. Despite their efforts, year after year, nearly two-thirds of American high school graduates are deemed less than proficient in reading. The result? Fifty percent of U.S. adults cannot read a book written at an eighth-grade level. (Go ahead. Read that last line again.)
I cannot help but imagine that much of what ails us today is explained in these numbers.
On the other hand, Senator Blumenthal is spot on. The average American watches 3.5 hours of TV every day. I watch a lot of TV, myself, but I prefer books. I even prefer to watch TV about books. For instance, one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation closes with Captain Jean Luc Picard—after hurtling through space at seven times the speed of light in pursuit of the Romulans—relaxing with a book. In the twenty-fourth century. Throughout the series, references are made to Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, William Shakespeare, and James Joyce. Time travel sequences introduce characters such as Jack London and Mark Twain.
I wonder, though, whether the typical STNG fan understands the insertion of these authors into a science fiction story. They are not essential to a plot line including Romulans, yet, their presence communicates ideas that enrich the experience; an enrichment that is lost upon those unfamiliar with Charles Dickens or Jack London.
Anyway, it seems to me that in some distant past, cultural literacy arose from spending time with books, and a classical education included the study of a foundation of books and authors that illuminated our common history and values.
Of course, today our culture is shaped more by TV and social media. Given the wide variety of experiences each of us has in these diverse environments, it makes one wonder what has become of the defining characteristics of our culture, as neighbors, as countrymen, and as human beings. In other words, what is it that we share that holds us all together?
I believe the answer resides in books. Besides encouraging a well-informed citizenry, reading improves individual health. Reading mimics the effects of meditation; it relieves stress by diminishing unhealthy hormones. Reading lessens mental decline later in life. Avid readers may be as much as 2.5 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s.
Young readers of science fiction are better prepared to deal with change in their lives. Regular readers sleep better and are less prone to insomnia. Reading promotes and satisfies curiosity. Reading makes us laugh and cry. It makes us think.
Culturally, reading promotes the sharing of ideas and the scaffolding of innovation. Prior to Johannes Guttenberg’s 1439 improvements to the printing press—moveable type and the development of a more durable oil-based ink—Europeans were essentially illiterate. Among the few books available in the early fifteenth century were handwritten copies of the bible circulated among a minority of religious scholars whose Church taught that individual liberty and individual achievement were unimportant. In short, a bookless world is ripe for oppression; so, too, is a world filled with unread books.
By 1500, more than 20 million books had been printed. During the next century, that number rose to as many as 200 million. These books facilitated a renaissance of thinking, creativity, exploration, and invention.
With summer at hand, it seems a good time to take advantage of Herr Guttenberg’s contribution. For my part, I have recently come across a few authors that readers of this column might be interested in. They may not be classics, but they are all worthwhile.
Dan Fesperman’s novels are literary thrillers set in time and place with a full respect for history. They have introduced me to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; CIA shenanigans in post-WWII Berlin; German saboteurs in early 1940s New York City; intrigue in modern Dubai; Sarajevo under siege in the 1990s and more.
Phillip Margolin’s suspense novels are lighter fare but no less intriguing. Set primarily in Oregon and Washington, DC, these political tales remind us that no matter how things seem to have spun out of control lately, it could be worse.
Chris Bohjalian’s Sandcastle Girls explores the Armenian Genocide during World War I while giving backdrop to the modern crisis in Syria. I have yet to explore his many other novels.
Perhaps more suitable for the beach is William Landay’s Mission Flats, a murder mystery with grizzled cops and a lively plot. It is my first Landay book, but others are waiting their turn on the shelf.
I like to say that my first book, the one that made of me a reader, is James Michener’s Hawaii. It is a beast of a tale, beginning as it does, “Millions upon millions of years ago…” But it jump-started my interest in history. Michener’s epic novels of place, Chesapeake, Centennial, Alaska, and many more, set me up in a history classroom for twenty-five years. The book, the gift of a teacher, shaped my outlook on life. It is, today, the reading of books that grounds me in all that I do.
Senator Blumenthal may be right. The American people, largely unable and unwilling to read the book, may need to see the movie. It might serve us all well to consider why this is so.