The Case of the Vanishing Reader

IT'S hard to know which insult lobbed by a senior Japanese politician stung America's national pride more - his charge that "US workers are too lazy," or that they're illiterate. Packing a one-two punch, Yoshio Sakurauchi, speaker of the lower house of Parliament, criticized Americans for working fewer hours than the Japanese. He also reportedly complained that "about 30 percent" of the United States workforce "cannot even read" -- a charge he later denied making.

Mr. Sakurauchi exaggerates on both counts, of course. America's productivity outpaces that of Japan. And one of the most-quoted books of the hour is Juliet Schor's "The Overworked American," a well-researched plea for a shorter workweek. As for illiteracy, estimates put it at around 5 percent, with functional illiteracy reaching an estimated 15 percent.

These rates are still distressingly high. But if I were to choose the less worrisome of Sakurauchi's two alleged American shortcomings, I'd pick laziness. There are ways to motivate adults to work faster, harder, better. Teaching them to read is more complicated.

Then there is the growing challenge of getting even literate people to read. What is called aliteracy - having the ability to read but choosing not to - may be a more widespread problem than illiteracy.

The latest sobering evidence of creeping aliteracy comes from the publishing industry. A new study by the American Booksellers Association finds that 60 percent of American households - three-fifths - didn't buy a single book last year. Equally alarming is the news that older readers make up the largest group of book buyers.

What an ominous trend for the book industry - a shrinking, graying core of customers. And what a contrast to a book-loving country like Finland, where in 1990 five million people bought 25 million books.

Although some of the slump in the US can be attributed to the recession, publishers express concern that much of the drop in sales appears unrelated to economic conditions. They fear they are permanently losing serious readers to jobs, electronics, sports, and other leisure activities.

Even the kinds of titles they sell may be cause for mild alarm. Popular fiction accounted for two-thirds of all books bought last year, and romance novels represented nearly half of mass-market paperbacks. Goodbye, serious reading. Hello, fluff.

During the '80s, the children's book market enjoyed tremendous growth, creating the illusion of a burgeoning new generation of readers and book lovers. But one study last year found that the percentage of students who read for pleasure every day drops by nearly half between elementary school and high school, from 45 percent in fourth grade to just 24 percent in 12th grade.

What publishers need are more schools like Elk Grove High School in suburban Chicago. Once a month, everyone in the school, from students to custodians, stops studying or working for 15 minutes and reads for pleasure. Called Drop Everything and Read, the program allows material ranging from rock music magazines, mysteries, and self-help books to poetry, sports pages, and even tabloids. As one measure of success, library traffic is up, and students have checked out 18 percent more books this year than dur ing a comparable period last year.

This tolerant approach to reading is hardly the attitude that prevails in communities where parents and organizations try to ban or restrict books and magazines in school libraries. Nearly half of all such efforts succeed, according to a University of Wisconsin survey.

In 1990 and 1991, the American Library Association reports, books that were either challenged or banned included "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" ("damages the self-esteem of black youth"), "Tom Sawyer" ("racist"), "My Friend Flicka" ("uses the word 'damn), Kipling's "Just So Stories" ("uses the word 'nigger), and Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" ("contains profanity"). So much for the classics and the pleasure of reading. Back to Nintendo.

A book lover may be forgiven for exaggerating. All the reading lamps have not yet gone dark. But on the other hand, could Yoshio Sakurauchi have been closer to the truth than we think?

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