Is it worse to be illiterate, or simply to not take advantage of your ability to read? Mark Twain is errantly credited with this wise statement: “The person who does not read has no advantage over someone who cannot read.”*
I would take this a step further. It seems to me that illiteracy need not mean the inability to read. It can also be used to describe those who choose not to read.
And, in the United States at least, we’re on a downhill slide when it comes to how much time people spend reading each day. Reading that’s not related to their jobs or educational requirements.
The data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which examines in minutiae how citizens spend their time. The most recent American Time Use Survey reveals the disturbing trend.
The descent begins at the precipice, where those who are seventy-five years old or older enjoy reading for an average one hour and forty-eight minutes each day. It slams to the ground for those fifteen to nineteen who devote only thirteen minutes to leisure reading.
Amazingly, that group is not the worst. Those who are twenty to twenty-four read nearly 8% less than they do, clocking in with a mere twelve minutes. The grim details are available here.
Obviously, we may assume that older people have more leisure time. A second consideration may be that their constitutions are not up to some more physically demanding activities. To minimize the effect of the “workday” influences, the numbers cited above come from weekends or holidays
But even combined, these factors cannot account for the radical differences we see. Younger people are simply not reading.
Too Little Reading
C.S. Lewis wrote a great deal about reading. He regarded it as one of the essential joys of life. He may not have been surprised by these statistics, but he would certainly have been aghast. I have written in the past about Lewis’ views on literacy in “Knowing Our ABCs.”
For Lewis and, I suspect, many readers of Mere Inkling, the desire was always to find more time for reading. In a 1919 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, he cited the inescapable dangers of reading too little.
If only one had time to read a little more: we either get shallow & broad or narrow and deep.
Lewis was also familiar with demands of responsibilities that devour our time and leave little for leisure of any sort. In another letter to Greeves, written eleven years later, he describes this predicament. I share it here at length because it also offers an insight into the role of reading in nurturing his reawakening faith.
All private reading has ceased, except for 20 minutes before bed (if alone) when I drink a cup of cocoa and try to wash the day off with MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul. I shall soon have finished it and must look round for another book.
Luckily the world is full of books of that general type: that is another of the beauties of coming, I won’t say, to religion but to an attempt at religion—one finds oneself on the main road with all humanity, and can compare notes with an endless succession of previous travellers. It is emphatically coming home: as Chaucer says “Returneth home from worldly vanitee.”
Reading can clearly be good for the soul. And it has another benefit that even unbelievers celebrate. It breaks through the isolation that plagues human life. Technology, it appears, is not delivering on its promise to dispel loneliness.
Reading, in contrast, possesses for many that very power. And a quotation frequently misattributed to Lewis,** but clearly consistent with this beliefs, captures this truth.
We read to know that we are not alone.
* Although Twain is commonly cited as the originator of this phrase, the earliest written parallel appears to be a 1910 publication in which the Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction wrote: “Who can see the barely perceptible line between the man who can not read at all and the man who does not read at all? The literate who can, but does not, read, and the illiterate who neither does nor can?”
** On the internet you will frequently find these words attributed to Lewis, and in a sense they do come from his lips. It comes from the television film Shadowlands, written in 1985 by William Nicholson for BBC.
The image at the top of the page comes from this interesting video with a unique contemporary twist on reading: