Act: Inspiration

The Great American Unread

October 29, 2018

I’ve long been disheartened by the downward spiral in the number of Americans who read, and an article in The Washington Post this summer further fueled my dismay.

Fewer than 15 percent of American males, it said, read for leisure on a daily basis. (Women are at 29.) Only 43 percent of all Americans took in a novel, short story, poem, or play in the past year. And lest we think that those 43 percent are reading stimulating and illuminating works of literature, the Post stated that more than half of adults who read choose young adult literature as their primary genre.

In my off-the-farm job, the following encounter is depressingly common: A young couple strolls into a bookstore — okay, shuffles in, feet barely lifting against the pull of gravity — and the female dully inquires after the latest zombie (ghost, vampire, superhuman) romance.

While she is off examining the possibilities for stimulating the remaining portion of a once active parietal lobe, I turn to the male and ask the question for which I already know the answer. “What do you like to read?” I say to the hoodie-cloaked figure before me. He looks up, surprised. As his brain slowly digests the content of my complex question, a look of disgust spreads over his face. I’ve somehow insulted him by suggesting that he might be among the realm of the literate. How uncool is that, man. He shakes his head and returns to his natural state, eyes lowered and locked into The Device.

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I am not amused. This republic of ours cannot flourish, cannot survive, without an actively literate citizenry. It is not enough to read only young adult or genre novels. We need to exercise our remarkable gift of reading with a thorough workout each day. Otherwise, we get the politicians that we have today, left or right.

The problem with a small, obscure blog like this is that the message goes out to you, the readers. It preaches to the choir, as it were. It is not within this blog’s scope or power to correct this aliterate trajectory. And I really don’t know how, if it is possible or even desirable, to reach those who don’t read. Peak literacy has passed. I feel, these days, like an anachronism, muttering something about “cultivating one’s own garden” — only to have some think I coined the phrase.

(Sigh.) Time to go out and do some real work … in my own garden.


Reading this weekend: The Vanishing American Adult (Sasse), which hasn’t helped my outlook today.

Brian Miller

Brian Miller lives in rural east Tennessee with his partner, Cindy. Since 1999 they have owned and operated Winged Elm Farm: a 70-acre working farm of pastures, orchards and mixed hardwoods. They direct market pork, lamb, mutton and beef to customers in Knoxville and Chattanooga. A native of Louisiana, Brian’s guiding influence in life is to know that everything begins with a roux. Brian blogs at The South Roane Agrarian. He is the author of Kayaking with Lambs: notes from an East Tennessee farmer.

Tags: building resilient societies, literacy