by Mark Y. Herring (Dean of Library Services, Dacus Library, Winthrop University)
Just when you thought the news could not get any worse for libraries, a new twist emerges on an old theme. When I saw the headline, I couldn’t help clicking: “Books Are Becoming the Fringe Media.” In a post dated 20 February of this year, Kevin Kelleher (http://tinyurl.com/ylqya7h) opines that books are, or are becoming, the new fringe media. People just aren’t reading them anymore, and certainly no one wants to digest 300 pages of text. No siree, this is a slam-bam generation. We want it now, we want it fast, and we want everything you need to know in 140-characters or less. This came as somewhat depressing news to me, an over 50-something. Not only am I on the downside of everything, it turns out that my interests, too, are fringe-worthy. Forty years ago if you intimated I wasn’t fringe, or living on the fringe, or outside the mainstream, I would have asked you to step outside, assuming I wasn’t at a peace rally. Now it appears that yesterday’s radical animosities are today’s conservative tendencies. What a brave new world in which we live!
Now, I don’t doubt the assertions of the blogposter, or Webcaster, or podundit, or whatever we call them these days. I can see the writing on the wall, and what’s more, I can read it. Books are going the way of all flesh, not so much because we hate them, or because we have little use for them, or because they have become démodé. We’re dispensing with them because this is a brave new world, and we have gadgets for that sort of thing now. Print is soooo-oh-soooo yesterday. Furthermore, it’s not even — OMGYG2BK — green. We’ve known for the last, say, twenty-five years that reading is in decline. Studies done by just about everyone (but especially the National Endowment for the Humanities) show that all sorts of reading are on their way down: newspapers, books (fiction or nonfiction), plays, and short stories. In fact, you name the reading material, and you can be fairly certain it’s no longer being read at all, or not like it used to be. Reports of the millions and millions of Kindle buyers (soon to be eclipsed, perhaps by iPads if the name or battery issue doesn’t sink sales before they begin) hint, perhaps, that the picture is not so bleak. Ah, but we know that the mean age of those Kindle readers is, well, the fifty-something crowd who carry the water for all readers these days. The twenty-something crowd is reading virtually (pun intended) not at all, or slightly more than five minutes a day.
A number of reasons obtain for the current phenomenon. We have e-readers galore (more than four dozen by my count), the Web in abundance, notebooks in surfeit, blogs in the tens of millions, and the Web in, well, let’s just say the Web is the poster child for the definition of ubiquity. Furthermore, nearly everyone is now being educated at the University of Google. This means that classes must not last longer than 1.234 millionth of a second. Add to all this Twitter, in which Millennials and others wax philosophical about their latest break-up, grey hair (singular), or the fact that wow-who-saw-that-coming you have to work for a living and very few jobs begin at six figures for a BA and no experience.
Honestly, none of these are really bad things in themselves, if I may wax philosophical for a moment. I have done all these things: read a half-dozen books on a Kindle, have a halfdozen social networking sites I visit regularly, blog from time to time on our library’s site, surf the Web, read a couple of dozen blogs, and so on. I don’t think these things really are, in and of themselves, bad. And by themselves I do not think they hold all the blame or even the lion’s share of it. Sure, all contribute, but none by itself is to blame exclusively.
They all come together, however, as I have said before in these pages, at the same moment and so have created a kind of perfect storm. All of these things are but tempests in teapots, taken together or taken separately. So what else is there? One thing more remains, and it is, if anything is, the williwaw, the tempest, the thundercloud, and it’s so simple it’s mind-boggling:
We no longer teach young people how to read.
And therein lies the saddest story ever told. For the past thirty-something years our schools have followed — and parents of young children with them — just about every conceivable harebrained reading scheme there is, and all of them with the same effect: young people leave elementary school either not knowing how to read, or knowing it only marginally, and hating it eternally. Part of this failure has to do with schools’ love of the new, but more of it has to do with the way we fund education. Anything old-seeming we despise and will not fund, forcing tried and proven methods to die of funding starvation. Meanwhile, any educrat with a scheme and a glib tongue can get millions of dollars for any experiment that involves the nation’s youth. We do this with reading, with math, and with science. The end result has been that more and more of our young people cannot read, write, spell, add, subtract, or divide. (Oddly, they do know how to multiply, but that’s a different rant.)
While I worry about the others, it is reading that bothers me the most. If a person knows how to read, he or she can do most anything. Obversely, if they cannot read, it is likely that their future will be bleak. Of course, exceptions exist to every generalization, but, by and large, a good predictor of poverty is not knowing how to read. Sadly, we know how to teach young people to read; we’re simply not doing a very good job of it ( in case you’re interested, a great new book on this topic is Dehaene’s Reading and the Brain, Viking, 2009).
This is not an issue about which we can simply throw our hands up in surrender. If young people aren’t reading — and we know they are not — we are, all of us, in a great deal of trouble. It isn’t that libraries will eventually disappear: of course, they will. It isn’t because bookstores will all eventually close: of course, they certainly shall, and sooner than later as we Boomers die off. And it isn’t because universities like the one where I earn my living will eventually become artifacts: of course, they will, and online learning is hastening the day they become relics. It is because the culture of these United States will disappear. Now, I know some reading this will think that day cannot come soon enough for political reasons that have nothing to do with reading. The only thing I can say to them is that you never really know what have until you no longer have it, and as proof of this assertion I have only to point them back to their youths. To those less political, I can say only that reading is the lifeblood of our culture and preservation of our heritage. If we let this slip through our fingers, we will lose more than we realize. I fear we’ll discover too soon that where we end up will be a very uncomfortable, very unpleasant, lunatic fringe.
Leah was appointed Executive Director of the Charleston Conference in 2017, and has served in various roles with the Charleston Information Group, LLC, since 2004. Prior to working for the conference, she was Assistant Director of Graduate Admissions for the College of Charleston for four years. She lives in a small town near Columbia, SC, with her husband and two kids where they raise a menagerie of farm animals.