New York Times
The Closing of the American Book
July 10, 2004
By Andrew Solomon
A survey released on Thursday reports that reading for pleasure
is way down in America among every group - old and young, wealthy
and poor, educated and uneducated, men and women, Hispanic, black
and white. The survey, by the National Endowment for the Arts,
also indicates that people who read for pleasure are many times
more likely than those who don't to visit museums and attend musical
performances, almost three times as likely to perform volunteer
and charity work, and almost twice as likely to attend sporting
events. Readers, in other words, are active, while nonreaders
- more than half the population - have settled into apathy. There
is a basic social divide between those for whom life is an accrual
of fresh experience and knowledge, and those for whom maturity
is a process of mental atrophy. The shift toward the latter category
Reading is not an active expression like writing, but it is not
a passive experience either. It requires effort, concentration,
attention. In exchange, it offers the stimulus to and the fruit
of thought and feeling. Kafka said, "A book must be an ice
ax to break the seas frozen inside our soul." The metaphoric
quality of writing - the fact that so much can be expressed through
rearrangement of 26 shapes on a piece of paper - is as exciting
as the idea of a complete genetic code made up of four bases:
man's work on a par with nature's. Discerning the patterns of
those arrangements is the essence of civilization.
The electronic media, on the other hand, tend to be torpid. Despite
the existence of good television, fine writing on the Internet,
and video games that test logic, the electronic media by and large
invite inert reception. One selects channels, but then the information
comes out preprocessed. Most people use television as a means
of turning their minds off, not on. Many readers watch television
without peril; but for those for whom television replaces reading,
the consequences are far-reaching.
My last book was about depression, and the question I am most
frequently asked is why depression is on the rise. I talk about
the loneliness that comes of spending the day with a TV or a computer
or video screen. Conversely, literary reading is an entry into
dialogue; a book can be a friend, talking not at you, but to you.
That the rates of depression should be going up as the rates of
reading are going down is no happenstance. Meanwhile, there is
some persuasive evidence that escalating levels of Alzheimer's
disease reflect a lack of active engagement of adult minds. While
the disease appears to be determined in large part by heredity
and environmental stimulants, it seems that those who continue
learning may be less likely to develop Alzheimer's.
So the crisis in reading is a crisis in national health.
I will never forget seeing, as a high school student on my first
trip to East Berlin, the plaza where Hitler and Goebbels had burned
books from the university library. Those bonfires were predicated
on the idea that texts could undermine armies. Soviet repression
of literature followed the same principle.
The Nazis were right in believing that one of the most powerful
weapons in a war of ideas is books. And for better or worse, the
United States is now in such a war. Without books, we cannot succeed
in our current struggle against absolutism and terrorism. The
retreat from civic to virtual life is a retreat from engaged democracy,
from the principles that we say we want to share with the rest
of the world. You are what you read. If you read nothing, then
your mind withers, and your ideals lose their vitality and sway.
So the crisis in reading is a crisis in national politics.
It is important to acknowledge that the falling-off of reading
has to do not only with the incursion of anti-intellectualism,
but also with a flawed intellectualism. The ascendancy of post
structuralism in the 1980's coincided with the beginning of the
catastrophic downturn in reading; deconstructionism's suggestion
that all text is equal in its meanings and the denigration of
the canon led to the devaluation of literature. The role of literature
is to illuminate, to strengthen, to explain why some aspect of
life is moving or beautiful or terrible or sad or important or
insignificant for people who might otherwise not understand so
much or so well. Reading is experience, but it also enriches other
Even more immediate than the crises in health and politics brought
on by the decline of reading is the crisis in national education.
We have one of the most literate societies in history. What is
the point of having a population that can read, but doesn't? We
need to teach people not only how, but also why to read. The struggle
is not to make people read more, but to make them want to read
While there is much work do be done in the public schools, society
at large also has a job. We need to make reading,
which is in its essence a solitary endeavor, a social one as well,
to encourage that great thrill of finding kinship in shared experiences
of books. We must weave reading back into the very fabric of the
culture, and make it a mainstay of community.
Reading is harder than watching television or playing video games.
I think of the Epicurean mandate to exchange easier
for more difficult pleasures, predicated on the understanding
that those more difficult pleasures are more rewarding. I think
of Walter Pater's declaration: "The service of philosophy,
of speculative culture, towards the human spirit is to rouse,
to startle it to a life of sharp and eager observation. . . .
The poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for
its own sake, has most; for art comes to you professing frankly
to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they
pass." Surely that is something all Americans would want,
if we only understood how readily we might achieve it, how well
the effort it is.
Andrew Solomon is the author of "The Noonday Demon: An Atlas