This was a Facebook meme circulating in December 2016/January 2017. I don’t know the source or veracity of it, but its claims sound probable and likely to me.
Surprising Book Facts
1) 33% of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of
2) 42% of college graduates never read another book after college
3) 57% of new books are never read to completion
4) 70% of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years
5) 80% of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year
6) The more a child reads, the likelier they are able to understand the
emotions of others
I commented: I still read almost fifty books a year, which is less than half what I read per year during seven years of college. And although I trade paperbacks I keep my hardcovers so that now my print library is around 10,000 books. The wife is angry.
A friend commented: Over the New Year holiday, in a spirit of dansahri, I threw away at least 40 books. I'd like to finish the job and get rid of all of them... Perhaps that's an exaggeration, but what I'm mostly interested in is the content of the book, the music on the CD, not so much the actual object that contains the words and music. Especially these days when everything is available, is there as much a reason to fill your house with books and CDs and DVDs...? I don't think so. I feel that I want to own the ideas rather than be owned by the objects. If I had 10,000 books in my home I'd feel suffocated, I'd feel like they were a huge weight on my shoulders limiting me.... I may be wrong...
I replied: I could be wrong.
Unless a print book’s condition is irredeemable you should NEVER “throw away” books. You ought to give them away, trade them or donate them. Books are treasure. We live in a largely literate age, especially among First Nation countries (industrialized, wealthy, developed capitalist democracies). But we do not live in a completely literate age, and never shall, I suppose. Casually throwing away books sounds to me like carelessly throwing them away. I imagine it is somewhat akin to euthanizing a pet animal just because you grow bored with it and don’t fancy caring for it any longer. (I have a brother who did that with his cat. His cat was perfectly healthy. He just didn’t want it anymore, so instead of giving it to another, or giving it to a pet shelter he took it to the vet and had it put to sleep. People are like that.) Books are a sustaining source of ideas and inspiration that provide an appreciation for the complexities and ambiguities of the human condition. They are a crucial tool for helping us sort out what we believe. They help us see the human situation entire: its follies, cruelties and mad blunders, but also its resilience, decencies and acts of grace.
When I tell people how many books I have I am always asked the same predictable questions:
1) have a read them all? (yes),
2) what good are they? (much good) and,
3) do I use them? (yes, I do)
Not satisfied by having their questions answered fully they pursue the matter. Have I really, really read them all? How are they good? How do I use them? Do I remember what they said? (I did not memorize them, but their content is reflected in my person.) Like conspiracy theorists, there is never any satisfactory or acceptable answer for such people.
These questions, these concerns reveal a few things. They reveal how stupid people are, how ignorant they are, and how they failed to be enlightened about value, meaning and right reason despite years of schooling. They don’t think. They can’t think. (In Japan I’ve met a great number of foreign university graduates who are uninformed and who don’t think and who appear unable to think. The world is very plain for them. Also, it’s difficult to talk to them because they don’t know anything, like they’re not really adults.) I suppose they also reveal how easily people are distracted by other events in their lives, by competing interests, etc. People expose themselves as poor souls. Most seem ignorant of their poverty, but I know some that are proud of it and boast about it. (One of my sisters-in-law proudly boasts that there are NO books in her house. She’s proud of her garden deck and her Jacuzzi hot tub and her regular holidays to Jamaica. She’s a twit.) Further, they expose not just the apathy but the hostile antipathy that literacy faces. At all times people are only a hair’s breadth away from burning books and congratulating themselves. Of course, they think that utility is a driving, self-evident virtue and that they are virtuous people. They would deny, resist and argue my statement. No matter who they are, people always imagine themselves virtuous, acting from the best motives. I don’t think I’m judging them. I think they judge themselves and I am only reading them.
Living inside the library of my skull sounds more like a condemnation than a blessing.
Basically, most people hate books. They hate them as physical objects, they hate their contents; they hate the memories of school that they might conjure. They hate having to admit that they do not read. They know they are ignorant of significant things - things like art, music, history, geography, politics, even current events - but hate having to face it.
A residence without books is not a proper home just as the credibility and attraction of a town without a print newspaper, a public library, a bookstore and a used bookstore are diminished. Every home demands a library if for no other reason than because it is through small, scattered, provincial libraries that civilization is preserved. We preserve by unlimited, unrestrained duplication. Large libraries are always targets of destruction. Not only in times of war and at the hands of adversaries, but even in times of peace by our own hands, in the name of ‘library management.’ So now at the dawn of the digital age there are conscientious morons advocating the closure of public libraries as useless historic anachronisms. Fossils. That’s the virtue of utility. Clearly, such digital advocates understand very little and ought not to be trusted with public authority.
Literacy is not just a function of modern life with a pragmatic, utilitarian aspect. It is not merely a habit. It is a philosophy that defies pragmatic concepts of utility, and it is a necessity for modern life to function. Therefore, internalizing books’ content and carrying them within us, so to speak, is inadequate as a way of demonstrating a literate life. It does not reflect literacy and learning. It sounds more like a condemnation, this living only inside the library of my skull. You never just read something once and then are done with it. Not even an instruction manual, although no one will admit it. It takes time - sometimes more than a lifetime - to digest information. (Convincing people of the value of literacy took centuries and it’s still an ongoing, steep uphill battle. The dangers of tobacco took about ninety years to communicate. The sovereign personhood of females is still widely disavowed, even in places like America. And so much more besides.) To those who talk proudly about utility I say that the reward of reading is reading itself. And, to questions of the utility of a large print library I reply that, in my life, I need to look at books in order to enhance the experience of being alive.
The reward of reading is reading itself. I need to look at my books in order to feel alive.
Now, you might bruit about the advantages of digital books, and i-readers, etc. If a book is available in a library or on the internet what’s the point of having it myself, in close proximity, when it’s available and I know how and where to access it? Miraculously, with a computer modern students can go to class with tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of books at their fingertips rather than just a handful of printed textbooks. Experience is already teaching us, though, that people, including students, are not using digital resources to their ideal advantage. They are tweeting, snapchatting, playing Pokemon Go, emailing pictures of their food and watching cute cat videos. Stuff like that. Attention spans are being further detoured from deep, artistic narratives to short verbal bursts. Punctuation and capitalization are quickly diminishing, and even words themselves are slowly giving way to emojis/emoticons. Alphabetic language is already waning in the face of a new hieroglyphic generation. I have a high regard for language and for words. Every word has a body and a soul.
Although statistically people are reading a greater number of words per day than ever before, the form in which they are reading does not contribute to greater knowledge or understanding. People are reading an accumulation of short (vacuous) messages that both reflect and contribute to the retardation of our attention spans. We are not becoming better informed or more intelligent. In fact just the opposite. People’s worlds are shrinking to the narrowness of their social media contact lists. I’m not immune, either. The only social media I participate in is Facebook and I actively customize the privacy settings on my many photo albums so that not everyone in my contact list can see everything I’ve posted. I have my reasons.
Every word has a body and a soul.
The lack of general knowledge that a widespread lack of reading nurtures is a concern for a number of reasons, but my primary worry is about the deterioration of the common core of knowledge required for a civil society to function. It is necessary for all the citizenry - young and old, employed and unemployed, male and female, criminal and law-abiding, poorly educated and well educated - to acknowledge a core set of information, beliefs, values. It remains to individuals to hold or not to hold with that core set, but they still must recognize it. That basic template has been conveyed by universal public education and it has depended on the use of language - on reading, writing, listening and communicating, and on the guidance of teachers and librarians. But now with social and digital media
1) people’s worlds are shrinking, as I said,
2) their perspectives are becoming narrower, as I explained,
3) their sources of information are fragile and less reliable, and
4) the fragmentation of our societies is already apparent.
A democracy, especially, depends on an informed electorate. As 2016 showed us twice (Brexit in July and the U.S. general election in November), the belief that in political economy people will always vote for their self interest is false.
Of course, maybe the large nation state is just going through its normal life cycle. Maybe large nation states are an anachronism and not endurable in the long run because of their artificiality. So if it’s true that fragmentation is occurring, it might simply indicate a return to a more natural social life: smaller, even tribal communities. Even if that’s true I’m not sure it’s a good thing.
Books are a sustaining source of ideas and inspiration that provide an appreciation for the complexities and ambiguities of the human condition.
1) print books might recede as they find an equilibrium with digital media, but they will never
die. I feel confident saying that paper - one of the Great Inventions - is here to stay.
2) questions like the above strike me as ridiculously beside the point.
3) digitization does not equate to preservation. In fact just the opposite, digitization increases
the fragility of information and knowledge behind a mask of democratizing it. (By some
estimates, more information has been lost since the advent of the personal home computer
than was ‘lost’ at the fall of the Roman Empire that sent Europe into
the so-called Dark Ages [which weren’t, in fact, quite so dark].) So,
4) digitization does not equal democratization.
5) books as objects are works of art. They are beautiful things, three-dimensional with weight
and odor. Very titillating.
6) words are wonderful. We have a relationship with words and with stories, and through
them we have a relationship with people both deceased and alive, and with ourselves I
wouldn’t doubt. The printed word as a three-dimensional thing is a totem, or talisman. Not
just something to play with in your head but something to play with in your hands.
Until widespread literacy, culture was largely aural. Books and letters were dictated to secretaries. The Bible was read aloud. Education did not depend on the ability to read. Private reading was practically an evil, anti-social behavior. But that changed when vernacular languages began overtaking traditional Latin and the printing press began availing readers of cheap books. Private reading became the norm and, in its way, a method of forging community. Digitization is the next step, akin to the advent of the printing press in that it is a new method of community formation. The death of the community as we know it, politics as we know it, privacy as we know it, and the individual as we imagine ourselves.
But I could be wrong.