"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.

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