"Seek not the good in external things. Seek it in thyself." - Epictetus

Home of the bookless: Why don’t Americans read?

It’s long been my personal belief that you can ascertain the overall intellectual makeup of a populace by determining its literacy rate. The majority of people I’ve known who are in my age range (I’m 31, at the time of writing) either show no interest in reading, have never read books for pleasure, or believe that reading is a waste of time. That being said, it varies by area. My home town in New Jersey, along with its surrounding area, was readerless more often than not; the closest book stores were in other towns closer to the city, and the local library was often empty save for people using the Internet. Conversely, in Chicago, there are six bookstores in my neighborhood alone.

It isn’t just a matter of book availability, however. According to demographics obtained by the Pew Research Center, 26 percent of Americans say they have not read a book in the past year, whether in paper, electronic, or audio form. That might not seem like much, but it’s quite a significant number, and an increase from a prior Pew survey in 2011. This means that more and more U.S. citizens are choosing not to read, and it’s a bit disturbing. But let’s move on, and take a look at the people in this country who can’t read, as well as those who have a hard time of it.

As a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy found, 32 million adults in the U.S. don’t know how to read. 32 million. That’s one in seven grown men and women in this nation. Meanwhile, 21 percent of adults read below a fifth grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates cannot read. The literacy rate in this country has not improved since then; it’s actually taken a turn for the worse. The ripple effect of illiteracy is fraught with its own growing problems. According to the Department of Justice, “the link between academic failure, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” As confirmation of that statement, here’s another stat for you: 70 percent of America’s prison inmates cannot read above a fourth-grade level.

On the other hand, let’s take a look across the pond. European countries – particularly in Scandinavia – have much higher literacy rates than Americans do, and people there are much more likely to do it for enjoyment or as a frequent hobby. In Norway, Finland, and Luxembourg, 100 percent of the population is literate. Slovakia, my family’s home country, has a literacy rate of 99.6 percent. That beats out the 86 percent rate for the U.S., based on data collected in a 2013 survey by the U.S. Department of Education. Slovenia, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine – these places also have impressively high literacy rates. In other words, each of these countries I’ve mentioned has more people per capita who know how to read than does the U.S.

This blog post is not meant to be an attack on the country in which I live or its citizens. And yet, I can’t deny that I’m incredibly embarrassed and disappointed, as well as worried about the intellectual future of a society in which people don’t know when the Declaration of Independence was signed, think Christopher Columbus discovered America, can’t tell you where the Panama Canal is, who Julius Caesar was, or name the capital of their own state. Most infuriating about this all is that things were not always this way. There has been a significant dumbing down of U.S. culture over the past several decades. In 1960, the illiteracy rate here was 2.4 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Now it’s 14.

According to journalist Charles Pierce, who wrote Idiot America, “the rise of idiot America today represents the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are the people who best know what they’re talking about.” This is very much in line with reality, with people left and right (no political allusions intended) claiming that “climate change is a hoax,” or “the moon landing was faked.” To say nothing of the Flat Earthers, the “Targeted Individuals," the New World Order fanatics, so on and so forth. We are living in a scary time, in which scientific fact is disregarded by a portion of the populace who do not understand it, or who are simply incapable of doing so. I mean, when people believe that space travel never happened, that carbon dating is “wrong,” and that there’s no such thing as evolution, how can one possibly argue or reason with a person like that?

There’s no getting around it; the fact that so many people cannot, will not, do not read, plays an enormous role in ignorance and lack of education. 18 percent of Americans believe that the sun revolves around the Earth. During Obama’s term as president, 29 percent of U.S. citizens could not identify Joe Biden as the vice-president. 56 percent of Americans think that vaccinations cause autism.

We should not aspire to ignorance. We should aspire to being well-read, to being informed, and to conducting ourselves with logic and discernment. We should hone our skills of research and reasoning, to act upon facts and rational thought, not emotional triggers, prejudice-based conclusions, or conspiratorial groupthink. We should crave knowledge, not shun it in favor of regressive macho, know-nothing mentalities. However, at the risk of being controversial, I would add that my generation in particular – those “Millennials” who so many older folks see as being so advanced and forward-thinking, are major contributors to The Ignorance Problem. They’ve become too engrossed in their smartphones, too welded to social media, too reliant upon Google. They’re accustomed to instant gratification, which has too often replaced their self-reliance and the impetus to sharpen proper analysis and investigation skills.

I’ve said this time and again, but I encourage people to open a book. Whether it’s Shakespeare or Neil Gaiman. Whether it’s a novel or a comic book. Whether it’s a technical manual or a book on language. Whether it’s fiction or non. Whether it’s a story or poetry. A single book or a series of novels. Fan-fiction or song lyrics. Anything. Don’t be like one of the ignorance-addled characters in Fahrenheit 451; be like the man who wrote it. Remember: The only knowledge that can hurt you is the knowledge you don’t have.

Why epic fantasy is essential, not escapist

I’m currently re-reading the first three books in The Stormlight Archive, a series of epic fantasy novels by Brandon Sanderson, in preparation for the fourth and newest volume, Rhythm of War. Its expected release date is November 17. These are big door-stopper novels coming in somewhere between 1,200 and 1,300 pages each. Just the way I like them. But as far as my astute and observant eyes can tell, I’m in the minority here in several ways. Firstly, I read and own actual books – hardcovers and paperbacks alike, rather than downloading content on an Amazon Kindle or some other e-reader. Furthermore, I don’t know a lot of people who read fantasy (I can count the friends who do so on one hand), and of those who are interested, many prefer a much less daunting and comfortable page count of 300-700 pages, or thereabouts.

I’m just glad to know that I have friends who are fans of the genre. It’s something that, as both a reader and aspiring author, I find myself surreptitiously looking for in people – trying to discern their reading habits and their fiction genres of choice. I live with an older roommate who is an avid reader, though much of his personal library is political non-fiction or history, with a few science books and perhaps a handful of mystery novels thrown into the mix. A coworker of mine likes political history and philosophy, though he will also enjoy graphic novels and some of the more popular fantasy novels; he even has a friend who has self-published a short book in the genre. If I look beyond people in my immediate orbit, such as musicians and artists who I closely follow, I’m always pleased to see Cristina Scabbia of Lacuna Coil reading Batman or Star Wars comics, or Brittney Slayes of Unleash the Archers reading The Witcher series.

Fantasy is one of the most important – and simultaneously one of the most disregarded – forms of literary fiction. More than that, it’s one of the most influential cultural underpinnings of Western society. Our very language has been shaped by countless decades of epic tales; the word “muggle” has now officially entered the Oxford English Dictionary, and “dracarys” (High Valyrian for “fire”) is remembered and known by a wide range of people. Is there anyone who doesn’t know what a Hobbit is? Or a Jedi? Or Excalibur? Maybe that one weird uncle you have who binge-watches The Weather Channel and likes to show everyone his stamp collection. But different strokes for different folks. Hell, as the proliferation of epic fantasy continues to migrate onto streaming platforms like Netflix and Prime, more people will know what a Mandalorian is, and be well acquainted with the term Witcher.

Still, there are many out there who find the genre to be crass, uncouth; the stuff of childish pastimes. Some stuffed shirts, scholars, and others with a myopic, clinical worldview might tell you to put the toys away and grow up. It’s a flawed stereotype that outsiders have regarding zealous adherents to fantasy fandoms. To them, a comic convention or a Magic: The Gathering game night is not a pop culturally charged campfire around which friends can bond and share their joy in captivating fictional worlds, but rather, something silly and foolish – a collection of supposed man-children abandoning the stifling beleaguerment of drink-the-Kool-Aid-academia and exhaustive political squabble. When the truth is, fantasy has long been among the cornerstones of popular culture, consumed and appreciated by men, women, and children alike.

And yet, the naysayers continue their diatribes, sometimes even from within the very circle of fantasy authorship itself. In a recent interview, Watchmen creator Alan Moore derided superhero comics and films (presumably with the exception of his own because it’s like, you know, postmodern and sociopolitically conscious). Moore claimed that superhero films in particular have “blighted culture,” that they should be for children, and that attempts to make them palatable to or directed toward adults are “grotesque.” What Moore failed to address, and what he should very well know, is that from the 1930s to the 1950s, many comic books were extremely violent, and certainly not the stuff of childhood consumption. Many did not cease being dark and gritty until the advent of the Comics Code Authority, which censored and effectively ended that Golden Age of Comics, reducing superheroes to relatively innocent, youth-targeted do-gooders, rather than the morally and philosophically complex character studies they would become a few decades later.

You see, despite the integrity, intellectualism, and narrative brilliance that so many fantasy works offer, there remains a certain portion of society that looks upon it with disgust or embarrassment. Yet many of them secretly crave much of what fantasy stories contain – it’s simply that, for whatever reason, the aesthetics and many of the actual components of what make fantasy, well, fantasy, are just too much for them to absorb. I don’t think it’s even so much a case of people not being able to suspend their disbelief; rather, I think there’s something about it that just makes them feel as though they’re doing something wrong. I think it also has something to do with people’s perceptions of their own reputations. I notice that people in academic circles, or those who have careers in very real, material areas such as law or medicine…these people in particular seem to regard the elements of a fantasy narrative as something not to be indulged in openly, or else something that would render them socially weird or out of place, like a businessman happily walking the streets with an untied shoe.

Of those who do consume fantasy but don’t wear it on their sleeve, and seem to feel almost guilty after tuning into an episode of Game of Thrones, or pushing aside Steinbeck and Hemingway in exchange for Tolkien and Martin, they almost always call the genre as a whole “escapism.” For some, it’s a way to separate and compartmentalize the genre, so that it won’t somehow break free of those constraints and bleed into other areas of their lives. For others, it’s a defense mechanism, a way to justify their joy of it while maintaining a carefully crafted outward image of apparent maturity and sophistication. “I may read The Lord of the Rings or watch The Empire Strikes Back on occasion – you know, they’re cute little stories,” said Mr. Bourgeois, sniffing importantly. “But I’d much rather watch this Saturday Night Live clip where celebrities make fun of politicians for the 500th time, than to be caught dead at Comic-Con.”

Here’s why “escapism” – whether used as pejorative or a simple label with no malicious intent – is inaccurate. Fantasy, like any other genre of speculative fiction, does not exist in a vacuum, and to say that indulging in its narratives is a way of somehow escaping or ignoring reality, is to imply that it does. Actually, much like the logo on your t-shirt, the drink in your glass, and the houseplant near your window, there were and always will be demonstrable, material preconditions for all works of fiction, no matter how fantastical. An author's work is the product of a multitude of internal cognitive processes and external influences, all thrown together like so many ingredients in some grand recipe, cooked in a stew of inspiration and wonder, and thrown onto paper to whet the appetites of enthusiastic readers who have just finished destroying the One Ring on Mount Doom and are now looking for their next mental and emotional adventure.

A single fantasy novel was shaped by – and in turn, will also shape – events and fundamental aspects of the real world that you and I live in. No matter how many dragons there are, every spark of every idea comes from the life and world that we actively live in and engage with. To categorize it as somehow different, or in an area all its own where we must only visit fleetingly, and with nervous glances at anyone who we fear might condemn our “unrefined tastes” (re: lack of pretentiousness), is to practice absurdity. Fantasy is owed a high position among the great influential elements of the arts – after all, it was one of the first genres ever written. Ask Odysseus, or Gilgamesh, or Macbeth. Ask God.

Finally, though, it seems that fantasy is getting its due. I can’t put much stock in my personal hope that more people will turn to fantasy literature – or literature in general, but I can attest to the growing dominance of the genre in television and film. Though television itself is an increasingly outdated term – again, in recent years when it comes to popular fantasy, Netflix, Amazon, and the like are on the tip of everyone’s tongues. So why, then, as the genre spirals its way to an epic crescendo of fandom, do just as many people seem to be getting their backs up against the wall about the whole thing? Perhaps it’s because they’ve been trained to turn instead to its polar opposite: Epic reality. Now, perhaps more than ever, we are all slammed with reality – on every smartphone, every computer or tablet screen, and in nearly every conversation.

You can’t open Facebook or YouTube without becoming an unwilling participant in the 24/7 news cycle – stories of the worst aspects of humanity come to fruition flooding your home page. Another mass shooting. More people than ever falling to poverty and homelessness. The pandemic and all the lives it’s claimed. These are all important things – we must stay informed and vigilant, now perhaps more than ever before. But we used to consume our news in an hour, maybe two, per day – staying educated and apprised of the problems and the tragedies by necessity, but not spending six hours a day wringing our hands over every single aspect of every single horrible thing, and then proceeding to argue endlessly with anonymous people online who we’ll never meet about the very things we now live in ceaseless stress and fear over.

How many times do our minds switch off and we scroll, dead-eyed, through the same news feed we just scrolled through, re-reading the same news byte, replaying the same video clip, that we saw five times already? What further knowledge can we gain by plumming every corner of every social media app for every perspective, argument, and/or retelling of every piece of news? Interspersed, of course, with well placed ads for Burrito Blankets and Dill Pickle-Flavored Lip Balm. Conspicuous consumption much? We are seemingly engaged in a constant, neverending stream of Non-Fiction, but the plot is cliché and repetitive, the featured characters are plutocrats and tyrants with whom the reader cannot possibly empathize, and all the death scenes are tasteless, tragic, and far too close to home.

When people want to distance themselves with that, they go and Keep Up with the Kardashians or watch people make really bad 90-day marriage decisions for money. Ah, yes, reality TV. The pinnacle of entertainment. If only Shakespeare had put aside those silly plays and scribed breathtaking narratives about the day-to-day goings on regarding the people in his social circle. What did Bethilda really mean when she made that offhanded remark about Mafalda’s elderberry pie? And will Isaiah find out about Esmerelda’s torrid affair with Nathaniel? Now, if he had written epic reality works like that, he’d really have been on to something. Look, I’m neither condemning these types of shows nor denying people their right to indulge in them as they please. But for this to become one of the hallmarks of our current zeitgeist, in which people commend these shows while in the same breath mocking shows with superheroes or dragons…is it really so much to ask that people reassess their views on fantasy?

I can’t deny that there isn’t some inherent bias on my part. It’s been my life’s goal to write and publish a series of epic fantasy novels, something I’m still working diligently on. In the meanwhile, I’ve probably become “that guy” who’s “always writing that one novel he’s been working on for 15 years.” But slow and steady wins the race. Regardless, I think that if people just give the genre another try (it’s growing and evolving in some amazing directions these days, The Stormlight Archive being one fine example), they might be surprised at what they find. And then – dare I suggest it – perhaps it’s okay to take a little pride in your love for these stories. In these times of social distancing, maybe we can adopt the Vulcan hand salute in place of a handshake? “Live long and prosper” is a phrase anyone can get behind. Or you can continue to keep your copy of A Dance With Dragons beneath your pillow for late night reading. I won’t tell if you won’t.

“Don’t panic!” It’s only panic disorder

Short of breath. Hands unsteady. A rush of sudden fear without explanation. It can happen when I’m sleeping. How often have I woken up at 3 or 4 a.m. with a jolt of panic, the origins of which I cannot place? Between that and the sleep paralysis, going to bed is a dreadful thing for me; I find no peace in my dreams and no security in my mind.

Often, the panic arrives when I’m awake. It can be at any time of day or night. Random sudden movements or noises can set it off. It’s happened in public – cases in which I’m walking down the street, and the beep of a car makes me flinch, arms flailing for a second (just long enough to provide some embarrassment, and once or twice, awkward looks or chuckles from passersby; I’m glad my crippling anxiety can be someone else’s entertainment). A person suddenly emerging from a store entrance can also have this effect. Or a loud clink from construction work. I can’t predict what’s going to cause the panic to emerge. There isn’t really any specific sort of pattern.

But there, at least, there are triggers. It’s more disturbing to me when it happens for no reason at all. I can be happily typing away like I’m doing right now, or watching a movie on my laptop, or folding laundry. And suddenly, like an old and very personal nemesis, it’s back again. I clutch my chest as another panic attack hits, the world swims hazily in front of my eyes like water circling a drain, and for the briefest moment, I know for certain that some kind of horrible impending doom is at hand.

I’ve been diagnosed with panic disorder. I have medication for it, but doctors are hesitant to give out a lot of potentially habit-forming medication, so I have a non-refillable prescription of 30 pills. I’m supposed to space them out, to take them only when I really need them. The problem is, I feel like I need them all the time (but I don’t lean on them much; I’ve still got 26 pills left). Between panic attacks, I’m almost in a constant state of fear and dread, and I don’t know why. Mercifully, there are periods of time where that feeling just goes away. Don’t get me wrong, I can sometimes have weeks and weeks of happiness, and I suppose, a sense of relative calmness (though I rarely feel entirely tranquil).

I never used to be like this. It all began – truly began, from what I can remember – around 2016 or so. I feel like living in a big city is conducive to my panic attacks, and does play a role. Prior to moving to Chicago in 2009, I lived in a town with forests, farms, and mountains, where you’d see a car on the road maybe once every 20 minutes. Transitioning from that to city life has been anything but smooth. It’s comparable to diving into ice water.

Since last year, I feel like whatever it is I’m going through has worsened. I now sometimes feel a sense of removal from myself, as if I’m outside of myself. More than a few times, I’ve sat at my computer and felt a strange sensation, like my spirit was being pushed out of my body; I’ve felt like my “presence” or “essence” was behind my body, by the bed, five feet away from where I was sitting. The first time it happened it scared the shit out of me. I still find it disturbing. I don’t believe I’ve talked about this online until now.

For the past week or so, my mind has felt so overwhelmed from what I’m going through that I haven’t been able to pursue the things I’m passionate about – everything from writing to working on my YouTube channel. I’m trying to get my head back in the game, but it feels like an uphill battle right now.

I just want to feel better. I don’t want to be eating dinner and suddenly drop my fork and jolt upward out of my chair, because my roommate’s dog barked. I don’t want to draw bemused eyes upon me when I’m walking outside, because a sudden police siren made me jump. I don’t want to wake up and feel a random, fatalistic sense of terror, an emotion that seems to have no conceivable reason for even being in my mind. I don’t know why this is happening to me, and every time I fight it, I feel like I get punished for it; the feeling returns, seemingly ten times stronger.

I love life and there’s so much I want to do. I want to see the world. I want to finish my manuscript and possibly see it published someday as a novel. I want to get back to my normal schedule as a YouTuber. I want to meet new people and not mentally debate going outside because there’s an irrational sense of danger in my heart. I just want things to change.