Where have all the readers gone?

A short while ago, while driving down a local road, I took notice of the pedestrians. Of the 15 people I counted, 12 had cellphones plastered to their ears. There was a couple among them – the woman was talking on her phone while her husband marched forward at her side, staring blankly into the distance.

This scene resonated with me, because I had recently read that the National Endowment for the Arts did a survey in 2004 that showed that nearly 57 percent of adults had not read a book of any kind in the previous year. More telling, though, was the finding that there had been a steep drop-off in the number of readers, especially young readers, since 1992.

Wasn't it just a couple of years after that when cellphones – and the Web – were exploding forth? I see a relationship between the ascent of these devices and the waning of readers. Just as the calculator supplanted the slide rule, the cellphone and computer have displaced book reading in a truly dramatic way. I see it everywhere I go: in parks, waiting rooms, and coffee shops. When people have a spare moment, the phones and lap- tops come out, but only occasionally do I see a book.

All of this makes me think of written language and what a rare – and cherished – thing it used to be. An anecdote is told about Erasmus of Rotterdam, the 16th-century humanist. One day he was walking down a street when he suddenly froze, because there, on the ground, was a slip of paper with a word written on it. He stared at this paper in curiosity and wonder – and with good reason.

Erasmus lived in a time when few people could write. And those who were marginally literate might own little more than an almanac and perhaps a devotional. Aside from this, written language was exceedingly hard to come by: There were no street signs, no store signs, and no newspapers. And yet, writing was a vital way to transmit information across distances.

In this age of electronic photos and videos, it may be difficult to imagine a time when people were dependent on the written word to bring them tidings of the world at large – or to send forth their own.

This reminds me of another anecdote, this time about Charles Dickens, who published his novels in installments in British periodicals. In "The Old Curiosity Shop," the main character, a child named Little Nell, becomes deathly ill. American as well as British audiences were captivated by her struggle. The last chapter of the novel contained her fate, and it, like all the other installments, was sent to America by ship. As the vessel approached its mooring in New York, Americans streamed to the waterfront, calling out, "Did Little Nell live? Did she live?"

The irony today, of course, is that there is a glut of written information – books, newspapers, and magazines galore – and in general, they are suffering from a loss of readers.

I teach at a university, and rare is the student who has his or her nose in a book that is not a course requirement.

Almost to a person, the students commune with their cellphones and computers, which are only periodically used to transmit useful information. They are, by and large, merely conduits for entertainment.

I smile when I think back on my undergraduate experience during the "Paleolithic era": no cellphones, no personal computers, no hand-held games.

All of us students seemed to have a paperback shoved into the back pocket of our jeans. Sometimes we'd pursue an English professor across the college green, waving that paperback, begging for an audience with the sage. On occasion he or she would stop, look down at us over the top of bifocals, and, if we were very fortunate, give us a few dollops of wisdom about this or that poem, short story, or essay. Then he or she would continue on to the literary Asgard in which professors of English dwelled when they weren't expressing impatience with freshman attempts to deify Edgar Allan Poe.

In our own quiet moments between classes, when there was no professor to hector, we students would pull out those books and actually read them.

The other day, while driving down that same road of cellphone chatterers, I was once again counting "talking heads" when suddenly I saw one staring intently into an open book as he walked.

I was dumbstruck and couldn't take my eyes away. And then it occurred to me that this must have been what Erasmus felt when he saw that slip of paper with that solitary word. And what was that word? History didn't record it, but I like to think that it was something like " Read."

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