Columns » Penny Post by Andrei Codrescu

The Reading Catastrophe



If you don't read good books, your brain will shrink and you will become a slave of advertising. Two new studies make this point forcefully. A survey of American reading habits notes that Americans now read 14 percent less literature than they did in 1992. And another study measuring brain activity finds that people who don't read respond much more slowly to situations involving thoughtful decisions, operating at a level close to lizards. Moreover, lizards have an advantage over humans in that they don't see advertising and they never watch television. Lizards will stay lizards, but humans will decay. Some commentators are blaming schools because they don't teach literature anymore. Others blame cell phones because they are making solitude rare, and chatter is replacing all solitary activities, including reading. Television, of course, sucks down a huge amount of leisure time. But if a shrinking brain is not sufficient reason to pick up books again, consider this. The ability to fantasize and dream is shrinking right along with the brain. People who do not fantasize or indulge in reverie are incapable of envisioning the future, whether it be as opportunity or just a reasonable analysis of options. The same goes for dreams, whether hypnagogic or nocturnal. Not dreaming means that you are depriving even your unconscious of the ability to psychically organize your life. The net result of these rapidly occurring losses is an emptying of the individual self, leaving people vulnerable to any and all persuasion from the outside. Look no further than the current political scene to see that paid commercials have become the chief persuader in political campaigns. The candidates themselves are too uncomfortably "live" to be absorbed by most people. This isn't news to anyone who's watched the triumph of pure rhetoric over self-interest in the decades since the Reagan Revolution, but the process is accelerating, and predictions are that by 2010 the only people still resistant to propaganda will be hiding in the woods reliving Fahrenheit 451 (by Ray Bradbury, not Michael Moore's political commercial, Fahrenheit 9/11!). In Bradbury's book, people memorize books and become "books" because books are forbidden. Obviously, there is no need for the state to ban books now; we are banning them quite willingly. Not reading literature means turning away from the nourishing spring that's fed human evolution for at least half a millennium. As a writer, I'm worried, of course, about my sales, but I speak altruistically here. Our schools should start training literate monks at least as hard as techies because the dark ages are upon us.

Wakefield (meaning "wake up in the field"), Codrescu's new novel, is a good start for getting back in the groove.

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