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Slipping into Illiteracy

November 2, 2016 — 7 Comments

no-readingIs 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.

reading-graphicThe 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 Shadowlandswritten 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:

snailEons ago, when I was attending college, I suffered from that common plague—a chronic lack of time.

Between my studies, my job and romancing my future wife, I never had enough hours in the day.

So I did what everyone in that situation does . . . I worked harder. It didn’t solve my dilemma and probably worsened my exhaustion.

During that indescribably busy season of my life God spoke to me through a song. It was recorded by an early “contemporary” Christian group called “Love Song.” At the end of this column you can listen to a recording of the song “Slow Down,” by Chuck Girard. (Don’t skip to it now though, since the link won’t work unless you read the entire post.)

It sounds a bit dated now, forty years after it was composed, but it still conveys a powerful calming message. I hadn’t heard it for years until I just uncovered it for this column, but listening to it today has stilled my sense of urgency as I rush to complete this post before our four grandkids arrive for a weekend visit, in just an hour.

The importance of slowing down and resting is never far from my consciousness, since I am always overextended. Like many of you, I find it extremely difficult to say “no,” so I end up committed to more things than I feel I’m able to do well.

This week I received word of another song, which is what actually inspired me to write on this subject. It’s by a delightful young artist and is much peppier than Girard’s more prayerful message. I believe you’ll enjoy watching the music video below (after you finish reading, of course).

In light of this human need for being reminded to rest, I wondered where C.S. Lewis lamented his own overburdened state. His courtesy in responding to all correspondence is legendary. In addition to teaching, writing, corresponding and (near the end of his life) husbanding, Lewis was far busier than I am.

So, I explored some of Lewis’ words. (That’s never “work,” by the way, since it never fails to reinvigorate me, just like physical rest.) I found the following passage delivers a brilliant insight into why many of us are so compelled to work—work—work.

In the following passage, from a 1930 letter, Lewis relates how our drive to succeed can be linked to our personal ambitions. He couches the discussion in the context of his own desire for renown as a writer. And, Lewis declares, it is only when those misdirected impulses are quelled that we can truly find rest and peace.

From the age of sixteen onwards I had one single ambition [to succeed as a writer], from which I never wavered, in the prosecution of which I spent every ounce I could, on which I really & deliberately staked my whole contentment: and I recognise myself as having unmistakably failed in it. . . .

The side of me which longs, not to write, for no one can stop us doing that, but to be approved as a writer, is not the side of us that is really worth much. And depend upon it, unless God has abandoned us, he will find means to cauterise that side somehow or other. If we can take the pain well and truly now, and by it forever get over the wish to be distinguished beyond our fellows, well: if not we shall get it again in some other form.

And honestly, the being cured, with all the pain, has pleasure too: one creeps home, tired and bruised, into a state of mind that is really restful, when all one’s ambitions have been given up. Then one can really
for the first time say “Thy Kingdom come:” for in that Kingdom there will be no pre-eminences and a man must have reached the stage of not caring two straws about his own status before he can enter it.

Think how difficult that would be if one succeeded as a writer: how bitter this necessary purgation at the age of sixty, when literary success had made your whole life and you had then got to begin to go through the stage of seeing it all as dust and ashes. Perhaps God has been specially kind to us in forcing us to get over it at the beginning.

At all events, whether we like it or not, we have got to take the shock. As you know so well, we have got to die. Cry, kick, swear, we may: only like Lilith to come in the end and die far more painfully and later. . . . I would have given almost anything—I shudder to think what I would have given if I had been allowed—to be a successful writer. . . . I am writing as I do simply & solely because I think the only thing for you to do is absolutely to kill the part of you that wants success.

Powerful words to ponder. Now, without further delay, the aforementioned songs. Profound lyrics in both. Listen to them in either order, keeping in mind that Myla Smith’s is energetic and Chuck Girard’s is meditative. Enjoy . . . and slow down!

“Slow Down” by Myla Smith

“Slow Down” by Chuck Girard