- Either you think - or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilize and sterilize you. (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
That quote came to mind as I came across news items reporting that the recently released "National Assessment of Adult Literacy" has found that literacy in the U.S. is declining. If one ever thought that by becoming part of an elite group one should congratulate oneself, what if that elite were getting smaller and smaller all the time to the point where you found yourself marginalized and eventually forced to view mainstream America from the lonely fringes of a society where fewer and fewer people can read? And what if you were looked upon with growing suspicion or even hatred? Concerning the future, can it be possible that there may come a day when noone in this country will be able to read this--at all?
As our new century proceeds and the technology of television, video games and the Internet becomes even more ubiquitous and universal, will there someday soon be a heated debate about the future of reading--even in countries which have ancient literary traditions?
Japan has one of the highest literacy rates in the world--a source of tremendous national pride since the Japanese language has close to 2,000 different letters that must be memorized. The next time you see a Japanese reading the NEW YORK TIMES, just keep in mind that it is a small accomplishment compared to an American being able to read the ASAHI NEWSPAPER.
But a few years ago, the NEW YORK TIMES published an article where a Japanese professor of literature and prominent book critic was quoted as saying, "In Japan, literature is no longer mainstream culture." This is especially ironic since the Japanese word for 'civilization' is 'bummei' which literally means "enlightenment through the written word." In addition, the world's oldest novel "The Tale of Genji" was written a millenium ago in Kyoto.
So is everyone now busy reading comic books? Comic books do exist in Japan (they are called 'manga') and have been tremendously popular. But according to the NEW YORK TIMES article, unbelievably, even 'manga' are going into decline.
But then what is replacing them?
Once upon a time, one could look into a Japanese train and expect to see people doing one of two things: either sleeping or reading. But today, one sees commuters preoccupied with portable electronic games, digital assistants, and cell phones which enable them to send e-mail and surf the Net.
The author of the NEW YORK TIMES article speculates as to whether this situation will remain unique to Japan or should be perceived as a sign of change that will also occur elsewhere. In the future, should we be surprised if the ground floors of our public libraries are converted into gigantic arcades a-buzzin' and a-blinkin' away?
The article also includes the observation of a Japanese publishing industry expert: "The way to success in this business is in writing easy-to-read books, with short sentences, lots of slang and easy plots":
- Life nowadays goes at a gallop; and the way in which this affects literature is to make it extremely superficial and slovenly. (Schopenhauer)
Does this mean that 'writers' will someday be spending all their time churning out gossipy articles about the latest young rising movie star or pop singer? Or will they be putting in a lot of overtime 'writing' the captions of oversized color photos of beauty pageant winners? Could articles ever be 'easy' enough, or will visuals eventually 'triumph' over text? Will 'readers' begin thinking that they exist only to be entertained and start thinking that something must be horribly wrong if they find themselves getting bored--for even half-a-second?
- The decline in literature indicates a decline in the nation. The two keep pace in their downward tendency. (Goethe)
Once upon a time, wasn't reading supposed to promote critical thinking--not only teaching the necessity of discerning the true from the false, sorting fact from fiction, and recognizing the possible from the impossible, but also preparing us for tough moral choices that had to do with making a clear distinction between right and wrong, differentiating the innocent from the guilty, and ultimately recognizing good from evil?
And whatever happened to cultural continuity? Electronic diversions may be great for economic good times, but don't traditions provide us with the values and inner strength necessary to persevere and cope with the bad times? Wasn't serious reading thought to be a tradition of traditions since the lessons learned from the literary masterpieces of the past served as a bridge between the generations? Didn't the wisdom gained from the study and discussion of the classics encourage us to contemplate complex philosophical questions pertaining to the way of human nature, the way of the world, not to mention the meaning of life?