By Jonathon Van Maren
Earlier this year, Pew Research Center released their statistics on the state of reading in America, and it doesn’t look great: Nearly one in four Americans had not read a book in the past year. Late night host Jimmy Kimmel decided that those numbers seemed pretty high, and hit the streets to do a segment called “name a book”–and actually managed to discover quite a few people who couldn’t name a single book. I know that these segments are pre-planned, clipped, and not representative of the public, but it is still pretty mind-boggling that there is anyone out there that cannot name any book at all.
It shouldn’t entirely surprise me, I suppose. Things are not much better here in Canada, where the average child racks up five hours or more of screen time per day—even when they’re in school. The Media Technology Monitor reported last year that in 2016, Canadians spent an average of 24.5 hours per week online—and that number is extremely low compared to the amount of time teenagers spend online. Reading takes time, and these days, young people simply do not want to sit down with a book when non-stop stimulation awaits them on multiple social media platforms, on Netflix, or with the latest video games.
I’m well aware of the fact that the pastime of whining about TV’s impact on young people is as old as television itself. I had the opportunity to interview Richard Horatio Blair—the son of Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell—last year, and he told me that his father was extremely concerned about the influence TV would have on him and his emotional development. This was in the late 1940s, back when virtually everything on TV was pretty unobjectionable–although perhaps Orwell saw where TV was headed even back then. These days, most people are following a wide range of TV shows, and thus do not have any time to read a book (like one of Orwell’s neglected masterpieces, for example.)
I note all of this in order to issue a very simple challenge: Read more. Examine what is taking up your time, and then make room for reading. If you begin to actually track how much time you click on the social media apps on your phone, for example, you might be stunned to discover how much time gets whittled away in five minute increments—and how much reading you could accomplish if you limited your time on your phone. You’ll probably be incredibly uncomfortable the first time you track your smartphone time and realize how much time you’ve been spending on it, but it’ll be worth it.
For myself, Twitter is the struggle. I used to check the news three times a day in order to keep on top of things and see if there was anything I should be writing about, but with the news often unfolding live on Twitter in real-time, I actually have to force myself to stop scrolling for more updates, more hot takes, and more notifications of minute changes to ongoing situations. And of course, you’re never done—things are always happening, everywhere, all the time. I ended up realizing that the time in the evening that I was spending checking Twitter on my phone was making me read a lot less, and have tried hard to scale back majorly (by setting specific times that I check the news.)
I’m not going to launch into The Case for Books here, because I think most people realize that reading is important. For this generation, reading is particularly important because our schools and institutions of higher learning often do a terrible job of ensuring that people emerge as literate and well-read citizens with a decent knowledge of Western Civilization’s history and canon. A rootless people are in grave danger of making the same mistakes over and over again, because they have not picked up books that tell them what happened last time around. As Ray Bradbury put it so eloquently in Fahrenheit 451: “The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They’re Caesar’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, “Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.’”
Put down your phone. Pick up a book. You won’t regret it.
For anyone interested, my book on The Culture War, which analyzes the journey our culture has taken from the way it was to the way it is and examines the Sexual Revolution, hook-up culture, the rise of the porn plague, abortion, commodity culture, euthanasia, and the gay rights movement, is available for sale here.