A Literate Electorate

An article in the  October 24 issue of Time Magazine got my attention.  Its title is “The Literacy of Long-Form Thinking”, and it was written by James Patterson.  Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about James Patterson: “(born March 22, 1947) is an American author. He is largely known for his novels about fictional psychologist Alex Cross, the protagonist of the Alex Cross series. Patterson also wrote the Michael Bennett, Women’s Murder Club, Maximum Ride, Daniel X, NYPD Red, and Witch and Wizard series, as well as many stand-alone thrillers, non-fiction and romance novels. His books have sold more than 300 million copies and he holds the Guinness World Record for being the first person to sell 1 million e-books.  In 2016, Patterson topped Forbe’s  list of highest-paid authors for the third consecutive year, earning $95 million.  His total earnings over a decade are estimated at approximately $700 million.

In November 2015, Patterson received the Literarian Award from the National Book Foundation, which cited him as a “passionate campaigner to make books and reading a national priority. A generous supporter of universities, teachers colleges, independent bookstores, school libraries, and college students, Patterson has donated millions of dollars in grants and scholarships with the purpose of encouraging Americans of all ages to read more books.

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James Patterson

The article begins: “A man from ancient Rome said it was better to know nothing about a subject than to half-know it.  I’m worried that this republic of ours is set on proving this wisdom all over again.  Only, we aren’t even bothering to know 50% of what’s going on.  Seems to me we’re satisfied with understanding 10% of something before we grow bored and turn to the next thing.  I say this based on what I know about the most important knowledge-building habit we have: reading.  We’re becoming a nation of functional illiterates . . . incapable of pursuing a train of thought for more than minutes at a time.

“The annual survey on time use by the Bureau of Labor Statistics put some proof to something I think we all knew was coming our way.  We have let our standards fall so far that this year’s first-time voters are, on average,  in the habit of reading for personal interest less than 10 minutes a day.  People aged 75 and older read about an hour a day.  The habit drops off through each 10-year bracket below that  until you get  to people ages 35 to 44 years old.  They’re reading 12 minutes on Saturdays and Sundays and less than 10 during the week.  Younger than that , it gets only worse.   That’s right – the majority of potential voters are reading less than 10 minutes a day,  You scared of that?  I am.  But I’m not surprised.  As a country, we seem to be entirely losing the capacity for long-term thinking.

“. . . An adult who absorbs words only through captions, tweets, posts, memes and – at best – smartphone screen-sized articles is not literate.  Not in my book anyhow.  I’d argue . . . that if we’re not in the habit of reading books or at least long-form articles that take us the better part of an hour in the course of an entire day, we are fundamentally damaging our society’s fabric, and our future.   We are becoming a nation of distracted nincompoops who don’t have the patience to bother finding out if lies are lies and – because we have lost the mental capacity to do otherwise – are forced to judge issues on the basis of style and delivery rather than substance and accuracy.

“Are you upset about the direction of this society?  Then fix it.  You’re a reader.  You know what reading does for your ability to think things through.  Get out there and make this your number 1 priority.  Got a kid?  Make her read 20 minutes a day.  Got a neighbor who stares at this phone all day?  Get him a good book.  Volunteer at the library.  Volunteer at  school.  At the very least, subscribe to a newspaper or magazine that supports long-term journalism and stop reading stuff for free through your screen.”

I couldn’t agree more!  Western society – not just  the US – is in very serious trouble!

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