Books and the Future of Understanding

February 21, 2020

The shift from written, textual language to electronic images in conveying information through media and publishing is changing the way that we absorb knowledge and gain understanding. It is also putting at risk the retention of analytical and narrative content about complex developments in our society, economy, environment and other systems that uphold the fabric of how we live and maintain our habitat.

Images in videos and digital media have at best accessory value in learning, because they illustrate rather than explain causes and processes, and because they often satisfy sensory needs without fulfilling our greater need to comprehend events and how they reflect the consequences of previous decisions.

We are at a fateful historical moment: we are still capable of limiting the cumulative global effects of 160 years of industrial and chemical manufacturing on our way of living, on other species, and on our atmosphere and oceans. But through media, we are no longer effectively enhancing the capacity of most citizens to understand and change these conditions, and thus to protect our biosphere and enlarge instead of reduce our options for living in the future.

The most profound expansion in cognitive capacity in human beings in the last two millennia occurred only a little more than 300 years ago in the mid-17th century, when the first mass distribution of books expanded the interiority of our thinking and reasoning. This happened because mass book-reading enabled individuals to absorb stories and ideas on their own, and to teach themselves and one another.

In a word, we exited a world in which information came mainly from parents, friends, and neighbors, and entered a world in which anyone who learned to read could teach and enrich others, informally or professionally. Although wars and depressions have occasionally limited the expansion of media and publishing, only now, in the early 21st century, has the availability and reading of books appeared to decline.

A print book doesn’t stream or talk. It is a manual, portable container of knowledge, which enables us to step into the shoes of other people who have lived throughout history and around the world. It is both a time machine and a device to listen to others’ thought. Every print book is tactile evidence that the world, indeed the universe, can be found in a library.

From 1992 to 2002 in the U.S., as cable television programming expanded, the number of American adults who did not read increased by 17 million people. In 1993, the number of books purchased in the U.S. fell by 23 million in one year. From 1994 to 2014, the number of bookstores in America declined by 50%. In 2016, the proportion of American adults who could not read was 14%. All that is the bad news.

The good news is that the decline in book-reading seems to be leveling off. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who read at least one book a year didn’t decline from 2012 to 2016, and 65% of Americans read a print book in 2015. Whether this is a pause before new electronic devices and media supplant more book-reading, we don’t yet know. But perhaps there is time to move the arrow in the right direction.

As a general observation, if we are complacent and don’t act to avoid becoming less literate and less deeply informed as a society, then we have to do something to compensate for the consequent reduced ability of citizens in democracies to make effective choices of leaders. Unless we prevent that, there will likely be an increase in the proportion of corrupt and exploitative autocracies around the world, perhaps even in longstanding democratic societies.

Moreover, unless it is reversed, the historical decline in book-reading and substantive discussion of public problems could hasten the reduction of objective, holistic information, inhibit us from having meaningful discourse in our lives together, and artificially enlarge our satisfaction with melodramatic rhetoric and symptomatic relief – as fewer of us exhibit civic responsibility and social maturity. If we don’t understand our real problems, and especially if we absorb deliberately false information about them, our societies are less likely to retain their cohesion and forward momentum.

Instead of enhancing our comprehension of urgently needed changes – which is strongly promoted by learning through substantive texts and print media – the gradual reduction of political and social understanding will reduce our capacity to elect good leaders and preserve our rights and liberties.

This isn’t about books or newspapers in and of themselves. It’s about the vital content that they still furnish so as to create a growing discursive space that feeds mutual respect and common cause. That is now under pressure if not outright assault. Henry David Thoreau said: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” And for that we need books, newspapers and other print media that esteem the truth and with it, create new generations of readers, writers and listeners.


Teaser photo credit: Flickr/Abhi Sharma. CC BY 2.0.

Jack DuVall

Jack DuVall is Senior Counselor and Founding Director of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. He was the Executive Producer of the two-part Emmy-nominated PBS television series, “A Force More Powerful” and co-author of the companion book of the same name (Palgrave/St. Martin’s Press 2001).

Tags: books, building resilient societies, Education