Twilight of the books” in the Christmas New Yorker chronicles the slow death of reading for recreation and education across the world. The subject has a particular resonance for the Philippines, whose population is largely “alliterate”; people who can read but choose not to.
There is school of thought that regards the loss of the reading habit with equanimity. In the simple search for discrete pieces of information, the internet is nearly always faster and more efficient than traditional research methods. Although my institution has a large and well stocked library, I seldom use it since my mouse will usually take me where I need to go more quickly. Even the dictionary, perhaps the quintessential “book”, is more efficient in its online form.
It is also true that one reason for the reduction in the number of hours spent reading is that people had fewer choices in 1955 (when reading occupied 21% of Dutch people’s spare time) than in 1995 (when the figure had slumped to 9%). If life has provided us with more ways to spend our time should we not rejoice, rather than wring our hands?
Even computer games, the despair of the middle-aged, are believed to hasten short-term cognitive skills and reactions.
Finally, middle-aged people have always had to put up with the ground changing beneath them. A hundred years ago it was the decline of horse-drawn carriages, now it is the twilight of the books. So what?
After reading the research cited in the New Yorker article, the only answer to the question in its subtitle—““What will life be like if people stop reading?”—is “fundamentally different, and in most ways much worse”.
Is it any surprise that the decline in of a reading culture in America has coincided with a dramatic increase in religious fundamentalism? As the article points out:
“Whereas literates can rotate concepts in their minds abstractly, orals embed their thoughts in stories … in an oral culture, cliché and stereotype are valued, as accumulations of wisdom, and analysis is frowned upon, for putting those accumulations at risk. … it is only in a literate culture that the past’s inconsistencies have to be accounted for, a process that encourages skepticism and forces history to diverge from myth.. "
In other words, true analytical thinking can prosper only in a literate culture. Without books, which distance us from the world and lend a sense of perspective, a world dominated by television news and YouTube seems likely to embed us in our own prejudices.
It can be amusing to read a magazine whose principles you despise, but it is almost unbearable to watch such a television show. And so, in a culture of secondary orality, we may be less likely to spend time with ideas we disagree with.
Just think about reading an article about George Bush and having to watch him on television …
Finally, as if a world ruled by dogma and cliché were not enough, we risk losing all sense of ourselves as human beings. A Soviet study of illiterate peasants in the 1930s uncovered this poignant observation:
The illiterates did not talk about themselves except in terms of their tangible possessions. “What can I say about my own heart?” one asked.
Nevertheless and despite the terrible implications, I can't help thinking that this is indeed "the twilight of the books". As Samuel Johnson said, "people in general do not willingly read, if they have something else to amuse them".