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Why Can't We Just Shut Up and Read?



Yesterday I was at Barnes & Noble, and I saw a young couple sitting in the café section, reading a book to their two young kids. Neither child was school age, but they sat there and listened attentively as Mommy and Daddy read each page and showed them the pics.

I couldn’t get over how pleased I was to see these two adults sharing a reading experience with their two kids. It brought back a memory of when I was six years old, and my mother took me to the neighborhood library to get my first library card. In order to have a card issued to me, I had to sign my first name, and I actually remember slowly printing out M-I-C-H and the other three letters with my mother, then 29 years old, smiling and nodding her head.

There’s a reason why I have always felt comfortable dealing with the written word, first as a reader, then as a writer, and then both reading and writing every day for the last 73 years. And the reason is because I was taught how to read, which in those days was the only way to communicate with anyone other than by using my mouth.

I’m talking about 1950. We didn’t have a TV. We listened to the radio, but what came over the radio were words that were spoken by someone else. It goes without saying that there was no internet, and when we did get our first home television in 1953 or 1954, we could see what the people on the TV shows were saying, but it was still just talk.

What the internet and worse, the wireless phone has done, is to take what used to be a whole, big production deal to transmit what people said on TV and radio and make it simple and easy for anyone and everyone to produce and disseminate whatever they want to say, no matter how stupid, brainless, or downright incorrect their words happen to be.

Want an example? Try Trump. If he gets boring, switch to Marjorie Taylor Greene. Not only are these two sh*theads saying things (I hope) they know aren’t true, but what’s worse is that what they say is then reported as – ready? – news!

I thought the word ‘news’ meant some kind of information which was at least minimally checked and corrected to make sure it was true. Or at least somewhat true. That’s not true.

And don’t make the mistake of thinking that ‘disinformation’ or ‘alternate facts’ are products of the internet age. When Lyndon Johnson informed Congress that an American warship had been attacked off the coast of North Vietnam on August 4, 1964, this total and complete piece of disinformation led to a war which only cost the United States some 60,000 casualties over ten years.

When I was in graduate school, the word ‘research’ meant you went to the library, looked up your topic in the card catalog, read several relevant books and checked the footnotes to guide you further into your work. Today, the word ‘research’ means scrolling through your emails and texts, or if you want to get really serious, do a Google search and read the relevant Wikipedia page.

I have a friend who taught at Columbia University and told his students to turn off their laptops during class because they would challenge what he said by raising their hands and citing Wikipedia as their source. He was then informed by the Dean that the students had the ‘right’ to browse their laptops while he was lecturing them on what he knew from having done a lifetime of original research.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is chartered by Congress to track how well school-age kids can read and write, has just released its 2022 report which shows a slight decline in literacy skills since 2019. Overall, student literacy remains slightly below what is considered ‘proficient’ (as opposed to ‘basic’ at the bottom and ‘advanced’ at the top) and this shift is blamed on the Pandemic which basically shut down public education for a whole year.

I’m wondering, however, whether the fact that roughly one-third of America’s student body is not reading proficiently isn’t also a reflection of the amount of time that kids are spending in front of internet screens which allows them to watch rather than allowing them to read.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those old farts who sits around complaining about how things were ‘better’ in the olden days. In those olden days, women couldn’t compete in the job market with men, blacks couldn’t buy houses in neighborhoods that were white, everyone had to bow their heads in class while some old biddy read a passage from James or Luke, gays and lesbians had to make goddamn sure that nobody knew who they really were.

I’m glad the olden days have gone away. But I’m not sure that everything we have now and didn’t have back then is all that good. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind if the information superhighway somehow turned into a one lane, dirt road and we had nothing better to do at night than to read a good book.

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