In the developed world literacy is higher than it’s been at almost any time in history. And that is something to celebrate. But is it possible that even in our high-tech society where so much communication depends on the written word, we may be slipping back into a kind of pre-literacy?
New data from a Pew Research study has me wondering. It turns out that more than a quarter of Americans didn’t read a single book this year, in any form.
And get this: One in three American men have not read one book in the last twelve months. And those with low incomes and no college education were even less likely to do so.
So what is going on here? We spend more time than ever reading texts, social media, and email—so why wouldn’t we be reading books, too? Well, a recent survey by Microsoft concluded that the average attention span is now a vanishingly brief eight seconds, down from twelve seconds in the year 2000. As the New York Times memorably put it, we now have shorter attention spans than goldfish.
When it comes to reading anything longer than a 140-character tweet, our ability to concentrate has plummeted. Be honest, now: How difficult is it for you to get through a half-hour Bible study without succumbing to the urge to check Facebook?
It’s gotten so bad that Cal Newport proposed last month in the Times that fellow millennials take a radical step to save their careers: and quit social media.
Services like Facebook and Twitter weaken our ability to concentrate, he writes, because they’re “engineered to be addictive. The more you use social media throughout your waking hours, the more your brain learns to crave a quick hit of stimulus at the slightest hint of boredom.”
Now, I don’t think quitting social media is the answer for most people, but Newport has a point. Joe Weisenthal at Bloomberg is also right to compare our virtual world of constantly-updated snippets with pre-literate cultures where information was transmitted orally. In a society without writing or books, he explains, ideas had to be short, pithy, and memorable—in other words, “viral.”
The written word and books changed all of that. They allowed people to move beyond the immediate and concrete to express more timeless, complicated, and abstract thoughts. A literate people can reason and debate with one another across the ages. And that knowledge doesn’t die with individuals, or change with the telling. In books, knowledge becomes practically immortal.
Which is why it’s disheartening to hear that so many Americans today—especially men—are ignoring these treasures.
As professor Allan Bloom wrote in “The Closing of the American Mind,” “The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency—the belief that the here and now is all there is.” It makes us not only more gullible but, as the recent consternation over “fake news” on both sides of the political aisle attests—easier to manipulate.
But we can’t just read books. We’ve got to read good books. Meaning, “Fifty Shades of Grey” does not qualify.
If you haven’t read a good book in a while, why not get a jump start on the new year? And make sure your loved ones get books in their stockings this Christmas! Check out our recommended reading list at BreakPoint.org, filled with masterpieces like C. S. Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of Discipleship,” and Glenn Sunshine’s “Why You Think the Way You Do.” They’ll raise you from the here and now and put you in touch with thoughts that have shaped history.
These books and many like them are filled with ideas too big for a tweet, or for that matter, a fish bowl.
BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.
Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Publication date: December 13, 2016