Internet, TV sap attention from books
By BRIAN NEWSOME THE GAZETTE
Defend yourself, Dante.
Be afraid, Bronte sisters.
Even you, Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, perhaps should shudder.
President Bush has proclaimed today Literacy Day, a recognition of the importance of reading. But literature continues to be under attack from the Internet and other media in abattle for our leisure time.
The grim assessment comes from an English scholar who directed a national project on how much people read. Many teachers and students in the Pikes Peak region testify to the cultural change.
Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University in Atlanta and the former director of research and analysis for the National Endowment for the Arts, discussed technology’s toll on reading in a public lecture at Colorado College last week.
Reading for fun is losing a popularity contest against the likes of Myspace.com, iTunes. com and the XBox, he said.
“It’s an educational or intellectual war. The more minutes you spend downloading music, the less time you’ll spend doing something else.”
The result, Bauerlein and others fear, is a society with a low-level vocabulary and short attention span.
Rebecca O’Connell, a sophomore at Pikes Peak Community College and an avid reader, said “people use the word ‘thing’ to describe everything. . . . They just use these random, vague words just to fill in the blanks.” .
Others believe battle cries are unnecessary. Culture is changing, they concede, but some students wouldn’t read in any case. Parents who keep homes stocked with books and read to their children exert more influence than the iPod.
Bauerlein directed a 2004 report on reading habits titled “Reading at Risk.” The report was based on the literature segment of a 2002 National Endowment for the Arts survey on participation in the arts and how people spend their leisure time.
A steep decline in reading compared to other activities prompted the organization to do a special report on the subject, Bauerlein said.
The number of people who read literature, especially young people, declined significantly in the past 20 years, the report found.
People ages 18 to 24 who said they read literature declined by 28 percent from 1982 to 2002. About 57 percent of young adults said they had not read a book, short story, poem, or play of any kind in a year, up from about 40 percent in 1982.
Nearly 90 million adults did not read a book in 2002, according to the NEA.
The number of books sold in the United States in 2004 dropped by 44 million compared to a year earlier, according to the nonprofit Book Industry Study Group, from 2.339 billion to 2.295 billion.
Bauerlein, who met with the CEO of Barnes & Noble after the “Reading at Risk” report was published, said much of the chain bookstore’s revenue comes from sales of CDs, DVDs and other nonbook materials.
In the lecture at CC, Bauerlein pointed to statistics from other studies about how much time people spend with media, and their habits on the Web.
A Kaiser Family Foundation study, for example, found that about two-thirds of 8- to 18-year-olds have TVs in their bedrooms, and that about half have video game systems. Children are exposed to about 8½ hours of media a day, although that could include concurrent time, such as watching TV while surfing the Internet.
Although the Internet is full of educational and informational sites, Bauerlein said, most teens and young adults are viewing social sites, or checking out celebrities, sports and pornography. When people view Web sites, they scan key words and images and skim text, Web-use studies have shown.
Bauerlein said he and other colleagues have found many college students seem to struggle with long novels or dense poetry more than past classes have.
Tom Napierkowski, an English professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, said many students have a difficult time with analytical reading.
“Sometimes students want to read materials in the way that they might want to read the sports page,” he said, noting that electronic and mass media have probably contributed to such habits. “I sometimes joke with my students that you can’t speed-read good literature.”
Linguists have found that a book for a 9-year-old exposes people to more new words than a prime time TV show, Bauerlein said.
“We have to regard this as a rival, a competitor,” he said about technology. He referred to an advertisement at an Apple computer store in which five notebook computers sat on a shelf between posters showing bookshelves lined with the classics. The slogan: “The only books you’ll need.”
Jane Abbott, dean of the PPCC library, said People magazine is one of the most popular items in the library. A former humanities teacher, she agrees that books and other literature are becoming casualties of war.
Many students, she said, struggle to find words for what they want to say. “It’s sad, and I think it’s also frightening.”
Karen Broughton, a reading teacher at North Middle School, says she thinks computers and technology shouldn’t shoulder the blame for a decline in reading rates.
Good reading habits are taught, she believes. She’s used the Internet to find interesting books for her students that she likely wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.
Broughton uses new technology in the classroom to help students who struggle with reading to build their skills.
Thalia Hardy, an English teacher at Doherty High School, believes technology can be distracting, but she’s noticed that most students who love to read learned that from their parents.
So how do you keep “Paradise Lost” from being lost, or prevent students from saying farewell to “A Farewell to Arms”?
Fight back, Bauerlein says. Academics don’t want to be seen as curmudgeons or reactionaries, he said, but those who don’t take the threat seriously will find it increasingly hard to assign literature.
Don’t expect book lovers to launch multimillion dollar ad campaigns during next year’s Super Bowl, but readers can do more to tout the virtues of reading and market the joys of a page-turner.
After all, curling up with a good laptop just isn’t quite the same.
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