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December 18, 2007 8:03 AM   Subscribe

Twilight of the Books - What will life be like if people stop reading? posted by Gyan (88 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Can you let me know when this will show up on television?
posted by procrastination at 8:08 AM on December 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


I'm glad the New Yorker includes lots of pictures.
posted by goatdog at 8:12 AM on December 18, 2007


This article is both interesting and depressing.
posted by drezdn at 8:12 AM on December 18, 2007


What will life be like if people stop reading?

Um... we've been watching this for the last ten years? The less people read, the easier they are to manipulate.
posted by rokusan at 8:14 AM on December 18, 2007 [3 favorites]




What will life be like if people stop reading?

A larger number of people in positions of national and international influence than you might think will be dancing euphorically.
posted by blucevalo at 8:17 AM on December 18, 2007


According to the Department of Education, between 1992 and 2003 the average adult’s skill in reading prose slipped one point on a five-hundred-point scale.

Possibly my poor reading comprehension is to blame, but I could swear that's AN INCREDIBLY TINY AMOUNT, CHICKEN LITTLE.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:18 AM on December 18, 2007 [8 favorites]


This seems bizarre to me. There are certainly no shortage of bookstores anywhere in the US. The article states: "sales fell from 8.27 books per person in 2001 to 7.93 in 2006." Well, maybe that's because more people are utilizing their local Barnes and Noble as a library rather than a retailer, and spending their $7 on a latte and a muffin rather than a paperback.

Granted this is just anecdotal experience, but there is a bookstore in every concourse in every airport terminal and that rent ain't cheap, and my local B&N and Borders stores are jam packed 7 nights a week.
posted by fusinski at 8:19 AM on December 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


Is this about the end of reading, or the end of print? That would be two different things.
posted by ardgedee at 8:21 AM on December 18, 2007


But Horace, don't you see? In at most five thousand years, we won't be able to read at all!
posted by cortex at 8:22 AM on December 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


Is this about the end of reading, or the end of print?

More so the first one, but mainly reading fiction.
posted by drezdn at 8:25 AM on December 18, 2007


This is pretty scary. I hear that way less people ride horses than they used to. I wonder how they get to work?
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 8:26 AM on December 18, 2007 [11 favorites]


The Internet related moneyshot:

The study found that grades and reading scores rose with the amount of time spent online. Even visits to pornography Web sites improved academic performance. Of course, such synergies may disappear if the Internet continues its YouTube-fuelled evolution away from print and toward television.
posted by drezdn at 8:26 AM on December 18, 2007 [3 favorites]


What will life be like if people stop reading The New Yorker?

Will we stop seeing denunciations of The Da Vinci Code as mind-rotting garbage cheek-and-jowl with stories decrying the decline in reading?
posted by DU at 8:26 AM on December 18, 2007


And completely unbacked up speculative handwaving here, but:

In 1982, 56.9 per cent of Americans had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. The proportion fell to fifty-four per cent in 1992, and to 46.7 per cent in 2002.

Does creative literature include or exclude things like historical nonfiction? Does settling in with a Stephen Ambrose book count, or not? And if not, what are the numbers like for non-fiction—when we've got an aging Boomer population that might be opting more for non-fiction as they age?
posted by cortex at 8:28 AM on December 18, 2007


It wasn't until I banished TV from my house that I was able to get any reading accomplished. The past 4 years could have been spent watching TV, which I would barely remember. Now I have a lifetime of memories, learning and a wall of books to be proud of.
posted by stbalbach at 8:28 AM on December 18, 2007 [7 favorites]


I liek comics.
posted by Artw at 8:29 AM on December 18, 2007


Granted this is just anecdotal experience, but there is a bookstore in every concourse in every airport terminal and that rent ain't cheap

People who catch airplanes regularly aren't really representative of the broader population, though.
posted by stammer at 8:29 AM on December 18, 2007


I hate to say this, but seriously people, RTFA.

It's rather even-handed, combining research and history to try give a view of declining literacy and the possible effect on society. For example, an oral society is less likely to accept nuanced explanations and will categorize things differently.
posted by drezdn at 8:30 AM on December 18, 2007 [4 favorites]


"sales fell from 8.27 books per person in 2001 to 7.93 in 2006."

This evidence would also support an alternative hypothesis that people are smarter and going to libraries instead of bookstores.

Also, my "creative literature" reading has fallen sharply in the last ten years both in absolute numbers (due to children) and as a relative measure, since I'm reading more non-fiction. How is the latter a bad thing?
posted by DU at 8:33 AM on December 18, 2007


Reading has little value in and of itself. Thinking is what we want, thinking characterized by broadness and thoroughgoing familiarity with the world. As such, the only thing that's likely to remedy the situation at this point is reading old books.
posted by koeselitz at 8:33 AM on December 18, 2007


Experimenters showed peasants drawings of a hammer, a saw, an axe, and a log and then asked them to choose the three items that were similar. Illiterates resisted, saying that all the items were useful. If pressed, they considered throwing out the hammer; the situation of chopping wood seemed more cogent to them than any conceptual category. One peasant, informed that someone had grouped the three tools together, discarding the log, replied, “Whoever told you that must have been crazy,” and another suggested, “Probably he’s got a lot of firewood.”

Those weren't illiterate peasants, those were SA goons.
posted by cortex at 8:34 AM on December 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


I hear that way less people ride horses than they used to. I wonder how they get to work?

As drezdn mentions, this is about much more than changes in technology or information-getting habits--if an individual does not read regularly, most especially while young, that person has a diminished ability to construct, understand, and be critical of explanations and/or arguments. The regular processing of linear text develops the rational mind in very specific ways, and a non-reading populace is simply more gullible--less informed, less independent in thoughts and opinions, and simply less able to follow when something is explained to them.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:35 AM on December 18, 2007 [3 favorites]


Nah, you don't want people to read.

They'll only complain about how it might make kids think.

I kid, I kid. But seriously though, isn't the Death of Literature proclaimed every damn year?
posted by Happy Dave at 8:35 AM on December 18, 2007


yeah, again, anecdotal, but I gotta agree with fusinski. As much as I dislike huge megalithic stores in general, B&N is friggen chock full every time I'm in there and I like it, despite hating crowds.
posted by edgeways at 8:37 AM on December 18, 2007


Every three months, round here.
posted by Artw at 8:37 AM on December 18, 2007


but I could swear that's AN INCREDIBLY TINY AMOUNT, CHICKEN LITTLE.

Also, while we haven't seen much of an impact in overall adult literacy rates, we will if these trends continue. What's significant now is not that people don't know how to read, but are choosing not to do so, at all. A generation or two of non-reading habits, and literacy rates will be negatively affected.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:37 AM on December 18, 2007


The article isn't about the death of literature, it's about the death of literacy. It just uses declines in the reading of literature as one of the pieces of evidence for this trend.
posted by drezdn at 8:39 AM on December 18, 2007


Ini five thousand years we will have evolved into beings of pure light and thought.

What I'd like is for someone to do a study of how many technical and instruction manuals people are reading these days as well as how much busiiness writing they're producing and reading in memo or white papere form. You know that shit that everyone deals with, but doesn't really count as reading, also there's this thing called the internet and kids and people write to each other way more than they even wrote letters in the 40s.

So it really comes down to the quality of writing that is being read and I would agree that literary writing isn't getting read as much, BUT it is being presented as other media (audiobook, movies, video games? (Hey you check that new Madame Bovary WII game -teh hawt!)) Non-fiction is selling like crazy. Thing about literary writing is it develops key thinking and empathizing abilities. Makes us smarter people less likely to be used as tools by the powerful and rich. It's necessary for democracy to function. One could make the case that as a democracy this country should underwrite literary fiction to some extent. But more than anything else, and no one ever talks about this even though it is THE killer APP that has always given people who understood it an edge:

Reading makes you sexier.
posted by Skygazer at 8:39 AM on December 18, 2007 [4 favorites]


less likely to accept nuanced explanations and will categorize things differently, looking at politics I think we have arrived at this point sometime fairly recently.
posted by edgeways at 8:40 AM on December 18, 2007


Henry Thoreau once said Why should one read books when he can read Nature direct?
posted by Postroad at 8:43 AM on December 18, 2007


'Why should one read books when he can read Nature direct?'

(So why'd he write a book about it?)
posted by LooseFilter at 8:44 AM on December 18, 2007


RTFA

Silly drezdn! Reading is declining.
posted by everichon at 8:45 AM on December 18, 2007


I would like to see what would happen to Henry Thoreau if we gave him an Xbox 360.
posted by fusinski at 8:45 AM on December 18, 2007 [8 favorites]


The only way people will stop reading is if a more efficient way of getting information to the brain is invented. People will read until information is piped straight into the brain. After that reading will be like latin, a dead language known to many.
posted by Kattullus at 8:46 AM on December 18, 2007


Thanks for this, Gyan. The article makes a few overgeneralizations about Havelock's work and the current issues being debated about literacy's effects in the ancient world, but it's unusual to see something written on this subject that actually hits most of the main scholarship.

The Ong collection is especially rich, though admittedly one can get lost in it if looking through it without a previous introduction to his work. Ong often gets dismissed for being polarized about the distinctions between oral and literate mindsets, but usually it's because they haven't read anything other than his first book. (Or sometimes it's because they're just looking to bash a white, Catholic priest making generally applicable statements.) But when I was working at a journal that was publishing one of his articles, I never dealt with a single contributor who was nice or more accommodating about suggested edits to his writing. His death a few years ago was a mighty loss for orality and literacy studies.
posted by zeugitai_guy at 8:51 AM on December 18, 2007


"Wwwww... wuh... hat... what. What while life? While life be lick. E. Uh."
posted by Wolfdog at 8:52 AM on December 18, 2007


> Even visits to pornography Web sites improved academic performance.

Jokes aside, that is mind-blowing.
posted by cashman at 9:01 AM on December 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


In five thousand years we will have evolved into beings of pure light and thought.

But no heat, and no meaning.
posted by rokusan at 9:04 AM on December 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


"Even visits to pornography Web sites improved academic performance."
Jokes aside, that is mind-blowing.


Yeah, I really wanted to see the detailed study on that part. No link, though.
posted by rokusan at 9:04 AM on December 18, 2007


cashman don't believe everything you read (on MeFi)
posted by stbalbach at 9:05 AM on December 18, 2007


I don't think the problem is reading. The problem is the writing. Our literature has gone to shit. Plenty of people are reading, but they are reading fluff. There aren't more than a handful of writers that are writing anything great (wherein great means something unique and special that people might actually still be reading in 50 years). Guys like James Patterson and Dan Brown and the serial novelists have mastered fluff. But if you are looking for "great books," we only have a few.

Maybe people are not reading as much because we have read every story worth reading.
posted by dios at 9:05 AM on December 18, 2007


If we called TV teletheatre, or "distance theatre", the New Yorker would applaud this as a cultural watershed - people are eschewing the tedium of print to watch theater (albeit remotely).

The New Yorker is to culture what the National Review is to political theory. Both think they are the vanguard of their respective fields, and both couldn't be more wrong.

There are entirely new literary forms that have developed online, and blogging isn't one of them. Blogging is the new thing that the ossified magazine folks understand because it is still very closely follows the old paradigm in which the writer is the opinion maker and the reader is largely silent.

The real literary vanguard includes threaded discussion, like this, which is not os much random as chaotic and interative. The discussion or discussions revolve around central themes or ideas and with each argument between posters the true nature of that central idea becomes clearer.

There are also concepts like ARGs, chatroom threads, etc. All of which provide new literary structures that have not yet been explored.

So, to the New Yorker, yes, people are still reading, but no, they aren't reading you. Because it isn't 1983 anymore.
posted by Pastabagel at 9:05 AM on December 18, 2007 [5 favorites]


People will read until information is piped straight into the brain.

Ouch! No thanks.
posted by Iridic at 9:07 AM on December 18, 2007


It's rather even-handed, combining research and history to try give a view of declining literacy and the possible effect on society.

Did we read the same conclusion?

And he may have even more trouble than Luria’s peasants in seeing himself as others do. After all, there is no one looking back at the television viewer. He is alone, though he, and his brain, may be too distracted to notice it. The reader is also alone, but the N.E.A. reports that readers are more likely than non-readers to play sports, exercise, visit art museums, attend theatre, paint, go to music events, take photographs, and volunteer. Proficient readers are also more likely to vote. Perhaps readers venture so readily outside because what they experience in solitude gives them confidence. Perhaps reading is a prototype of independence. No matter how much one worships an author, Proust wrote, “all he can do is give us desires.” Reading somehow gives us the boldness to act on them. Such a habit might be quite dangerous for a democracy to lose.

There are a lot of things wrong with this article. First, the author associates the loss of reading with the loss of reading creative fiction. Last time I checked they're different. *checks again* Yah they are. I spend what... maybe 6 hours a day processing text? And I'm talking about thick as tar academic text. I don't have time to read much fiction, which is said, but I'd rather not have it implied that I'm a lesser human being for the lack of it.

Other problems? Sure.

Tearing apart oral culture so tritely as to strike me almost border line racist. What? Yes. There's something problematic with identifying our most ancient tradition of cultural transmission with stupidity. Oral transmission values cliche, stereotype, and lack of analysis? If you really want to make such a sweeping claim, can you please try to do it in more then one paragraph.

You know what I miss? Poetry. You know what's taken it's place? Everything else. It's not as if people are sitting at home masturbating all day. And even if they are, it's not as if the brief spat of popular reading was the closest we ever came to apotheosis.

This article is pathetic. There's a bunch of somewhat interesting science and statistics gathered under roof with veiled attempts to make them seem connected.

This article is not even-handed.
posted by Alex404 at 9:08 AM on December 18, 2007


If you'll excuse me I'm off to improve my academic performance.
posted by craniac at 9:09 AM on December 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


Oh, I forgot one other thing. Fuck standardized testing. Just because it mounts your hobby house doesn't mean you get to trot it out like we've never seen a bell curve before.

Asshole.
posted by Alex404 at 9:11 AM on December 18, 2007 [4 favorites]


People will read until information is piped straight into the brain.

At which point we will shift, culturally, toward a concentration on knowing kung-fu.
posted by cortex at 9:12 AM on December 18, 2007 [6 favorites]


It wasn't until I banished TV from my house that I was able to get any reading accomplished.

That's odd. My television comes with a power button, which lets me turn it off. I get tons of reading done.
posted by xmutex at 9:12 AM on December 18, 2007 [7 favorites]


I would like to see what would happen to Henry Thoreau if we gave him an Xbox 360.

"As if you could snipe time without headshotting eternity."

"Cultivate the habit of early teabagging. It is unwise to keep the balls long from a level with the n00b's face."

"I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestioned ability of a man to beat Green Grass and High Tides on Expert Drums by conscious endeavor."
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:12 AM on December 18, 2007 [13 favorites]


The real literary vanguard includes threaded discussion .. which provide new literary structures that have not yet been explored.

Explored, how? "Literature' is typically a work of art. Online discussion boards (which have been around since at least the 1970s) are simply tape recorded discussions; or, transcripts, which are much older. Are MeFi discussions literature?
posted by stbalbach at 9:15 AM on December 18, 2007


I'm pretty sure I help artificially skew those numbers a few points higher than they otherwise would be.
posted by empyrean at 9:16 AM on December 18, 2007


That's odd. My television comes with a power button, which lets me turn it off. I get tons of reading done.

Because you are strong and have a will of iron.
posted by stbalbach at 9:20 AM on December 18, 2007 [3 favorites]


The art of analytical thought is probably closely correlated to the ability to hold your attention for sustained discussions and narrative. The ability to mentally model thoughts, objects and events through description alone can't help but make your brain smarter -- or at least slow the decline into stupidity.

So reading is good. Reading quality narrative prose, where you are challenged to mentally juggle the sophisticated portrayals of fully-realized imaginary people pursuing complicated interactions with each other -- how can that not be good?

Putting great works of literature on the big screen isn't the same thing. No matter how faithful the result is, there's no possible way it can challenge your brain the way good writing.

The point of my snark above wasn't whether the New Yorker article is wrong about the importance of literacy, only whether the drop in book readership is the sole metric for gauging this. I'm betting it ain't. I'm disappointed the New Yorker could only be arsed to namedrop the Internet as an tangential matter, when anecdotally, among my peers it has everything to do with not reading printed fiction any more. Like someone else mentioned, it's like mourning the decline of horses without noticing the automobiles.
posted by ardgedee at 9:26 AM on December 18, 2007


Reading has little value in and of itself. Thinking is what we want

Reading is thinking though. You have to make a conscious effort to read. Even if you're reading The Da Vinci Code and moving your lips while you do so, you're thinking and exercising the special bits of your imagination that Dan Brown touches.

However, you can watch the Da Vinci Code film entirely passively without really thinking at all. Unless of course you're moving your lips - that shows engagement.
posted by rhymer at 9:27 AM on December 18, 2007


But you can read at a surface level, without really thinking about what you're reading (beyond sounding out the words); and you can watch television and film critically. Different beasts, certainly, and I'm not jumping on any TV = Reading bandwagon, but let's not paint a this as some ridiculous binary.
posted by cortex at 9:30 AM on December 18, 2007


I've read this far, may I be excused now?
posted by Null Pointer and the Exceptions at 9:30 AM on December 18, 2007



Then folks will become more reliant on talking heads -- not just for news, but for entertainment!
posted by VicNebulous at 9:32 AM on December 18, 2007


People will say "I don't think you even read what I posted before you started snarking about it."
posted by jfuller at 9:46 AM on December 18, 2007


> Even visits to pornography Web sites improved academic performance.

Jokes aside, that is mind-blowing.
posted by cashman at 9:01 AM on December 18 [+] [!]


How 'bout just one joke: It's not their minds that are blowing.

Seriously, I think that the researcher may have confused cause and effect.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:47 AM on December 18, 2007


I'm going to have to agree with Alex404-- reading through this article, I think it has some serious problems with it. First of all, it bases its view of ancient greek literacy entirely on the thought of a single classicist, Eric Havelock, and while Havelock is pretty good, it's a pretty extensive subject that deserves a less biased approach. (I guess the author didn't want to have to find more than one book to read on the subject.) For example:

from article: Complex scripts like Sumerian and Egyptian were written only by scribal élites. A major breakthrough occurred around 750 B.C.E., when the Greeks, borrowing characters from a Semitic language, perhaps Phoenician, developed a writing system that had just twenty-four letters. There had been scripts with a limited number of characters before, as there had been consonants and even occasionally vowels, but the Greek alphabet was the first whose letters recorded every significant sound element in a spoken language in a one-to-one correspondence, give or take a few diphthongs. In ancient Greek, if you knew how to pronounce a word, you knew how to spell it, and you could sound out almost any word you saw, even if you’d never heard it before. Children learned to read and write Greek in about three years, somewhat faster than modern children learn English, whose alphabet is more ambiguous. The ease democratized literacy; the ability to read and write spread to citizens who didn’t specialize in it. The classicist Eric A. Havelock believed that the alphabet changed “the character of the Greek consciousness.”

Not with entirely and unqualifiedly good results, even according to the Greeks themselves. The most salient example being a passage in Plato's Phaedrus, which the author might mave mentioned since it's so a propos, in which the Egyptian priests are reported to reject the gift of writing which the god Thoth offers them, saying that writing kills memory and induces forgetfulness. It's understandable that, in a culture where illiterate men were able to memorize tens of thousands of lines of poetry, people would be reticent to regard writing as a true aid to memory. Mr. Crain says that "Havelock theorized that, in ancient Greece, the effort required to preserve knowledge colored everything;" but this is a permanent condition of human existence, not just of the ancient Greeks, and that's obvious when we look around. I don't doubt that too many books are published every year, or that, if we reduced the number of books available to around 500, we probably wouldn't lose anything of great or lasting value.

The author then leads into a discussion of the studies done by Alexandr Luria in the 1970s which are probably the most classic textbook example of 'sample bias' available. Of course 'newly literate' thinkers in a given community tend to be more intelligent, more conceptual, more abstract than illiterate thinkers in the same community. They're the ones who had the drive, the motivation, and the intelligence to learn the system of writing, even after childhood! This article doesn't satisfy what ought to be done to test this: lifelong literates ought to be tested against lifelong illiterates, the bias eliminated through diverse and large samples. I'd be willing to bet that the illiterates will have a much greater capacity for memory.

Not that this has a damned thing to do with the value of reading. Reading is only a form of extended communication. It would be just as beneficial if people could grow up speaking to wise people. Reading is only of benefit when that's not possible; say, for example, in modern times.
posted by koeselitz at 9:47 AM on December 18, 2007 [4 favorites]


Maybe people are not reading as much because we have read every story worth reading.


I read a lot of fiction. In fact, I read mostly fiction of the, "literary," variety, and I am regularly surprised by how this is never true.

Full disclosure: I write complete shit for a living mostly for the advertising industry and I ghostwrite for non-fiction authors (largely in the self-help industry) on the side. But I also write fiction. Naturally I'm biased, but I find articles like this completely depressing. Just as I find it completely depressing when I hear friends talk about how they don't have time for literature, as fiction is a guilty pleasure, and they have to save their few moments of reading time for popular nonfiction, "you know, the stuff that actually makes you smarter."
posted by thivaia at 10:08 AM on December 18, 2007


I hate to say this, but seriously people, RTFA.

It's rather even-handed, combining research and history to try give a view of declining literacy


Well, FWIW, I tried to RTFA, but the opening passage had logical gaps in it wide enough to drive a truck full of flat-screen TVs through. Tossing around the ridiculously loaded term "creative literature" as a data point, for example - I'm midway through the second book in Pullman's Dark Materials series at the moment, does that count? would it still count if I switched back to the Lester Bangs collection I pick at periodically? - and citing declining newspaper circulation without even passing mention of digital communications technology for another.

Did Sloppy McSnob eventually correct for these biases? And if so, shouldn't he be kind of shamed into silence on the subject of literacy by his failure to correct glaring logical errors in the introduction to his piece?

Is this about the end of reading, or the end of print? That would be two different things.

See, I concluded it was about the end of print, which the author had erroneously conflated with the end of reading, which is why I stopped doing the latter here on this medium that is not the former.

A snapshot of my personal breaking point on this issue:

I was invited to an exceedingly well-endowed liberal-arts college in North Carolina a couple years back to give a lecture on my first book, which is about The Simpsons (a TV show, note). The head of the journalism program was giving me a tour of the facilities, which were outfitted with broadcasting equipment and digital editing suites of a quality and currency far superior to the ones that, for example, the CBC uses every day. As we were leaving, he pointed out a bank of racks straining from the weight of that day's New York Times and Wall Street Journal (or maybe it was the Times and the Washington Post - in any case two of America's most important dailies).

The program director explained they were spending something like a hundred grand every year to provide those newspapers free of charge, because it was assumed that reading a newspaper was essential to the daily routine of a working journalist, and alas many of the school's most recent students seemed strangely unfamiliar with the practice.

I sort of nodded politely, because I figured it would be rude, as his paid-lecturing guest, to ask how many of those students read information from dozens of news sources each day in some other format. Didn't he realize that those kids had ready access, free of charge, to a wealth of information that the newsrooms he'd trained in couldn't have even imagined? Wouldn't that kind of access maybe tarnish just a bit of the allure of the godalmighty Times?

Anyway, I didn't say any of that. But I never again took anyone's handwringing over the death of reading at face value.
posted by gompa at 10:10 AM on December 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


Experimenters showed peasants drawings of a hammer, a saw, an axe, and a log and then asked them to choose the three items that were similar. Illiterates resisted, saying that all the items were useful. If pressed, they considered throwing out the hammer; the situation of chopping wood seemed more cogent to them than any conceptual category. One peasant, informed that someone had grouped the three tools together, discarding the log, replied, “Whoever told you that must have been crazy,” and another suggested, “Probably he’s got a lot of firewood.”

so literates = modernists? There was a similar pattern of “graphic-functional” thinking vs. abstract thinking in Liberian herders and "nineteenth century americans," according to the New Yorker IQ article posted earlier on the Flynn effect.


he best way to understand why I.Q.s rise, Flynn argues, is to look at one of the most widely used I.Q. tests, the so-called WISC (for Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children). The WISC is composed of ten subtests, each of which measures a different aspect of I.Q. Flynn points out that scores in some of the categories—those measuring general knowledge, say, or vocabulary or the ability to do basic arithmetic—have risen only modestly over time. The big gains on the WISC are largely in the category known as “similarities,” where you get questions such as “In what way are ‘dogs’ and ‘rabbits’ alike?” Today, we tend to give what, for the purposes of I.Q. tests, is the right answer: dogs and rabbits are both mammals. A nineteenth-century American would have said that “you use dogs to hunt rabbits.”

“If the everyday world is your cognitive home, it is not natural to detach abstractions and logic and the hypothetical from their concrete referents,” Flynn writes. Our great-grandparents may have been perfectly intelligent. But they would have done poorly on I.Q. tests because they did not participate in the twentieth century’s great cognitive revolution, in which we learned to sort experience according to a new set of abstract categories. In Flynn’s phrase, we have now had to put on “scientific spectacles,” which enable us to make sense of the WISC questions about similarities. To say that Dutch I.Q. scores rose substantially between 1952 and 1982 was another way of saying that the Netherlands in 1982 was, in at least certain respects, much more cognitively demanding than the Netherlands in 1952. An I.Q., in other words, measures not so much how smart we are as how modern we are.



...The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories.


actually, the "he must have a lot of firewood" quote is rather observant; the abstraction of thought, and the rise in IQ, has coincided with the development and maturity of an industrial-technological society with surpluses upon surpluses of the materials necessary for food, clothing, and shelter.

One wonders also about the link of rising IQ to the rise in Asperger's syndrome in children of Silicon Valley. Aren't humans supposed to be evolving more rapidly?
posted by eustatic at 10:10 AM on December 18, 2007


I can't even be bothered to read the article or most of the comments.
posted by slimepuppy at 10:12 AM on December 18, 2007


I've found that over the past ten years or so, I've been reading less and less fiction, and more and more non-fiction. I'm not sure how much of this is my own changing tastes, and how much is due to an increase in good non-fiction, but I suspect it's at least partially the latter. There is, frankly, a lot of damn good non-fiction being published right now. If the reading of fiction is declining because people are reading more non-fiction, that doesn't bother me in the least; in fact, I applaud it.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:22 AM on December 18, 2007


Didn't he realize that those kids had ready access, free of charge, to a wealth of information that the newsrooms he'd trained in couldn't have even imagined?

Sure, but were the kids reading the news online either?

The author of the article did make some poor phrasing choices, but I haven't seen one person in this thread actually provide any proof that the reading abilities of people are improving or even staying the same.

From the Washington Post: Declining Literacy in College Students

"Only 31 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it. That's not saying much for the remainder."

The article continues...
"What's disturbing is that the assessment is not designed to test your understanding of Proust, but to test your ability to read labels," he added.

The test measures how well adults comprehend basic instructions and tasks through reading -- such as computing costs per ounce of food items, comparing viewpoints on two editorials and reading prescription labels. Only 41 percent of graduate students tested in 2003 could be classified as "proficient" in prose -- reading and understanding information in short texts -- down 10 percentage points since 1992. Of college graduates, only 31 percent were classified as proficient -- compared with 40 percent in 1992.


The New Yorker article loses points for including the argumentative honeypot of literary fiction but where's the data that shows literacy levels improving?
posted by drezdn at 10:25 AM on December 18, 2007


eustatic, quoting the new yorker: “If the everyday world is your cognitive home, it is not natural to detach abstractions and logic and the hypothetical from their concrete referents,” Flynn writes.

This statement is flat wrong. In fact, reading that snippet, my initial reaction was that Flynn is some kind of idiot who probably doesn't know how to read himself, or at least isn't aware of any history before 1900. But, clicking through to that thread, I think spiderwire does a good job of showing that that New Yorker article is mischaracterizing him.

In short: it becomes clear with any sort of historical perspective that the Greeks, the tenth-century Persians, the Advaida-Vedantists in India, and a whole host of earlier peoples not only engaged in 'detached abstractions and logic,' but exceeded modern man. Even contemplation of the fact that 'justice' is a relatively universal concept shows us that abstraction is a natural consequence of human life.

Also, again, it makes perfect sense that, in a russian community in the mid-twentieth century, the ones who would learn how to read as adults would be those with a modernist bent. So the fact that the newly literate are somewhat modernist says nothing about the nature of literacy.
posted by koeselitz at 10:30 AM on December 18, 2007


drezdn: The author of the article did make some poor phrasing choices, but I haven't seen one person in this thread actually provide any proof that the reading abilities of people are improving or even staying the same.

The point is that the author did nothing to prove to us that 'reading abilities' correlate in any way to thinking abilities or intelligence. I don't doubt that people are getting stupider, and that society in general is becoming more idiotic, but if your only solution is 'read more books,' then you're likely to end up with people reading the most vapid fiction. (Increasingly common.) Which is worse than watching the best television show, no matter what you tell me.
posted by koeselitz at 10:35 AM on December 18, 2007


'Cos clearly nay time taken reading Dan Brown is taken straight out of time spent watching The Wire.
posted by Artw at 10:42 AM on December 18, 2007


My prediction: The next president will be a keen follower of Oprahs book club, thus revitalising reading, but with a heavy skew towards motivational spirituality.
posted by Artw at 10:45 AM on December 18, 2007


Man, all this right when (Metafilter's own?) Languagehat writes a book... Poor timing...
posted by inigo2 at 10:48 AM on December 18, 2007


Thanks for saying what I wanted to say better, koeselitz.

It was the vacuous stabs against oral culture that really set me off.

It's articles like this that lead me to believe sometimes that statistics should have never left the ivory tower. It's an extremely depressing the abuse they get put through.

There's a statistic which indicates that the mean consumption of creative fiction has declined somewhat significantly over the past 30 years. Fine. Good. It's probably a sound result.

And that's all you can conclude from it. People take these datapoints and run so far with them. I really wish they would stop.

Measuring IQ measures IQ. Measuring reading competency according to some standard measures reading competency according to that standard. These things are benign, but leaping from IQ to intelligence, or reading tests to reading ability is really, really, really, really, hard. And probably can't be done.

In order to make this leaps with mathematical rigor, you need an equal level of rigor in the concepts you want to move to, e.g. intelligence and reading ability. Especially with regards to the former though, nothing is even close to achieving that.

Statistics works wonders in the natural sciences and computer sciences, because the entities it is meant to relate are sufficiently well defined. Almost nothing in life has the requisite simplicty, and statistics does not really bring that simplicity any closer.

*grrr. Nerve touched. Rant over. Hopefully no one was watching.*
posted by Alex404 at 11:16 AM on December 18, 2007 [3 favorites]


Addendum: Gompa gets points too for his story.
posted by Alex404 at 11:17 AM on December 18, 2007


Dios: Our literature has gone to shit. Plenty of people are reading, but they are reading fluff. There aren't more than a handful of writers that are writing anything great.

Ahem. There were never more than a handful of writers at any point in history that wrote anything great. The only difference is that today the sheer volume of things that are written and published makes such writers seem rarer than before.

From what I can see, this article is just another form of the perennial argument that education is going downhill, and that people just don't learn as much as they used to, and that because of that our society is going to the dogs. This argument has a long and hoary tradition, and it is not at all surprising that it is being made an English Ph.D. whose blog is named Steamboats Are Ruining Everything.
posted by moonbiter at 12:00 PM on December 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


The problem is the writing. Our literature has gone to shit. Plenty of people are reading, but they are reading fluff. There aren't more than a handful of writers that are writing anything great (wherein great means something unique and special that people might actually still be reading in 50 years). Guys like James Patterson and Dan Brown and the serial novelists have mastered fluff. But if you are looking for "great books," we only have a few.

I disagree. From what I've seen, the quality of popular literature is poor. But there is a tremendous amount of work being published. So much that I don't think a book reviewer can stay on top of it all well enough to assess whether 'quality' is trending up or down. There are numerous serious writers currently working. They don't have to contend with Shakespeare, their sentences are well crafted and there's plenty to engage the reader's attention. More than that though, the store of excellent writing only gets larger as newer works are added to the canon. There is more high quality writing available than anyone can read. Our level of taste might be very low, but it's difficult to assess whether popular literature is getting weaker, and if so, whether there were equal levels of consumption. A tilt towards the lowest common denominator naturally follows, if the market is interested in the new versus the good, assuming that it could be even determined.

The issue of an overall shortening of attention is, in my opinion, more problematic.
posted by BigSky at 12:06 PM on December 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


TL;DR
posted by sourwookie at 12:10 PM on December 18, 2007


This sort of article affects me oddly, because my gut pulls me in one direction. But in the end, my mind pushes me in the opposite direction.

I'm an old-world sort of guy. I read Shakespeare and Dickens and Tolstoy. I direct classic plays without giving them modern twists. I have an apartment full of books. Most of my friends get upset about The Death Of Theatre, The Death Of Literature, The Death of Cultural Literacy, etc. Like them, I get upset when I announce that I'm going to produce an uncut Shakespeare play, and the actors I cast urge me to cut it because they're worried audiences won't sit through the whole thing. All that stuff makes me feel sad.

On the other hand, that's my problem. Of course I feel sad if the stuff I happen to like gets ignored.

I firmly believe the following:

1. People naturally hunger for narratives, and that hunger will last as long as the human race lasts. This craving of stories (fiction and non-fiction) is cross-cultural and pan-historical. I'd bet there's a genetic component to it.

2. Mediums are ephemeral. Oral culture gave way to written culture. Within written culture, pictograms gave way to phonetic-based alphabets. In the future, some old forms of media will die. Some new forms will be born. This is BOUND to happen, just as continental drift is bound to happen; just as fashions are bound to change.

If theatre dies, that will be personally sad for me, but storytelling won't die. It can't. If there's an apocalypse of some sort, and all libraries and theatres and televisions are destroyed, the surviving humans will tell stories around campfires. And then someone will re-invent writing and people will get sad that campfire stories are dying out.

Sure, if theatre stops, no one will get to see Ibsen plays any more, and that will be sad. If books are gone, no one will read "The Great Gatsby," and that will be sad, too. But that sort of stuff will happen (has happened, is happening) anyway, even if theatre and literature survives. Many books that the Greeks and the Elizabethans and the Victorians valued are almost unknown today. I just read this amazing novel by Mark Helprin. Will anyone care about it in 100 years? Probably not. That's sad -- for me and Mark Helprin and Mark Helprin's fans.

When I've gotten into conversations about The Death of Literature with people, it usually turns out that they have mixed all sorts of personal stuff -- important stuff -- in with the bigger picture. Actors who talk about The Death of Theatre tend to really be worried about lack of acting work. Writers tend to really be worried that no one will pay attention to them. And I don't mean to belittle that stuff. I share it. It kills me that more people don't see my plays. But I think that's a separate issue (even if it's a connected issue) from the large cultural problem. I'm not convinced there IS a large cultural problem. There's just culture. And culture is dynamic.

In the end, the sad truth is...

1. Culture is dynamic.
2. Each of us wishes our favorite culture was static.
posted by grumblebee at 1:21 PM on December 18, 2007 [7 favorites]


I hate to say this, but seriously people, RTFA.

Sadly, I am completely illiterate and incapable of reading even the most basic of texts. I am similarly unable to form cohesive sentences, in fact this entire comment was formed by randomly pressing keys in Firefox text-entry field until it suggested that the word I was using was not misspelled. Any possibility that these random words might be strung together into anything comprehensible as "English" is completely a coincidence and a demonstration that the in an infinite universe, anything is possible.
posted by quin at 1:55 PM on December 18, 2007


You know what I'm gonna do? I'm gonna make up a couple of custom t-shirts, one that says "RTFA" and one that says "tl;dr". And I'm gonna take those t-shirts and find myself a couple of ornery bums and pay 'em a bottle of hooch to put those shirts on and just tear each other apart. And I'm gonna tape the whole thing, and post it on YouTube, and I'm gonna talk Tom Pynchon into writing the best fucking novel of his life about it, and then I'll dig up Stanley Kubrick and get him to adapt that into the best film he's ever made, and then I'll show that to some illiterate Uzbekistani fartchicken and subvert thereby the local oral tradition—so powerful will be the visual and allegorical content of the film— and then I'm just gonna sit back and watch this whole conversation die, collapsed and fishlunging and twisting in the wind.
posted by cortex at 2:14 PM on December 18, 2007 [5 favorites]


Too bizy waching ‘Ow! My Balls!’
Reads TFA
Neil Postman explored this subject in better depth, detail and... I like money.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:14 PM on December 18, 2007


Is there something you want to talk about, cortex?

I'm a good listener.
posted by Alex404 at 2:59 PM on December 18, 2007


I tought the article was interesting but as I sit in a house with three full bookcases and stacks of books on the floor I can not find the heart to agree. I read everyday and have done so since I can remember.

My son is 22 and has a Masters in English. He is working on his PhD. He was home schooled for the most of younger years. We read, other people read, the end of books is not coming soon.
posted by bjgeiger at 5:06 PM on December 18, 2007


IMHO, as a reading teacher, it comes down to metacognition. Give me a kid with a third-grade reading level (in high school), and I will teach that kid to read at a sixth-grade level by the end of the year. (And a seventh or eighth grade level the following year. The rise in reading level tends to level off slowly.) No magic. No pills. No tricks.

Just teach that kid to think about what she's reading AS she's reading (to comment on it, make predictions, draw parallels to real life and other books), and you WILL see growth.

You HAVE to read fiction, something with a narrative, but you ALSO have to read nonfiction. Essays and articles. Poetry. Story problems. But just have that reader think deliberately about her reading.

That's all there is. You build a better reader and you build a better thinker.
posted by John of Michigan at 5:31 PM on December 18, 2007


The study found that grades and reading scores rose with the amount of time spent online. Even visits to pornography Web sites improved academic performance. Of course, such synergies may disappear if the Internet continues its YouTube-fuelled evolution away from print and toward television.

I'm really glad. Cause if I hadn't been reading MeFi I'd have finished that book by my bed and woken up early to study.
posted by ersatz at 6:44 PM on December 18, 2007


dios: The problem is the writing. Our literature has gone to shit. Plenty of people are reading, but they are reading fluff. There aren't more than a handful of writers that are writing anything great...

There were never more than a handful of authors writing anything great. Seriously, have you ever been to a used book store and read some of the stuff that has never, ever been reprinted? If James Patterson and Dan Brown characterize fluff for you we have considerably higher-quality fluff than was coming out a hundred or even fifty years ago.

You're probably noticing it because so many more people are taking up writing and so many people are reading that it's printed promiscuously and spread all across the country.
posted by XMLicious at 7:03 PM on December 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


xmutex writes "That's odd. My television comes with a power button, which lets me turn it off. I get tons of reading done."

I can relate to what was said. I watch little TV but it sometimes sucks me in (especially when I find myself someplace with massive choice because of satellite or cable) and I find myself yawning at midnight wonder where the previous 5 hours went. TV tends to turn the analytical and awareness parts of my brain off.
posted by Mitheral at 8:56 PM on December 18, 2007


> in fact this entire comment was formed by randomly pressing keys in Firefox text-entry field until it suggested that the word I was using was not misspelled.

My dog types all my posts for me. Which is why I post sporadically--there are days when he just won't be dragged away from his pipe and his Thackery.
posted by jfuller at 7:20 AM on December 19, 2007 [2 favorites]


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