One in four adults say they read no books at all in the past year, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Tuesday.I mean really. Not reading? Why? One of the guys they interviewed actually said "I just get sleepy when I read," which I guess was a less embarrassing admission than "I'm actually dumber than a bag of hammers."
It gets worse. Among those who admitted to having actually cracked a tome in the last year, the average number of books read was seven. In a whole year. How can you do that? How can you only read seven books in a year? In the past week I've read (or re-read) Shards of Honor and Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold and Threshold by Caitlín R. Kiernan for entertainment; Crap Cars and The Action Hero's Handbook off the stack in the... er, reading room; I'm about a third of the way through Our Kind and a quarter through The National Pastime, both for edification; and I've read British Enfield Rifles, Vol. I and re-read The Mosin-Nagant Rifle and about half of Collecting Classic Bolt-Action Military Rifles for research. Even if I'd been pulling down the hours at the old job, the only difference in that list would have been that it would have contained one novel instead of three. You'll note that of those books, only three are completely fictional works read purely for enjoyment; the rest might actually learn me something. Not only have I been entertained, I also know a bit more about baseball, cultural anthropology, and old military rifles than I did this time last week, plus all the peripheral subjects touched on in those books.
The owner of a gun shop at which I worked a couple of years ago was, well, let's put it charitably: He wasn't what you'd call the intellectual type. His son got all the Harry Potter books as soon as they were released. He didn't actually read them, mind you, nor was he encouraged to, but at least when kids at school asked "Did you get the new Harry Potter book yet?" he could hold his head up and answer in the affirmative. One morning at a gun show, just before the show opened, my boss noticed me with my nose in a book and asked "Whatchoo doin' there? You a bookworm?" Not ten minutes later, someone strolled over to our tables and asked an obscure technical question. Without looking up, I piped up with the answer and my boss, completely without irony, asked "How do you know all that stuff?" I nearly bit my lip off choking back the cascade of smartass replies that sprang immediately to mind. "See the squiggly black marks between the covers here? They're a secret code that conveys information."
This, in a nutshell, is why folks don't read. We live in the Nation of the Jock, where the cult of the anti-intellectual has more adherents than the Southern Baptist denomination and where William Jennings Bryan was a viable political figure, where "book smart" is an insult delivered with a wink. We grow up in the soft electron glow of a TeeWee screen watching sitcoms and movies in which anyone with any brains at all is portrayed as a social misfit at best, a hopeless loser at worst. Mencken's "Sahara of the Bozart" has expanded north of the Mason-Dixon and engulfed the old Yankee domains, even bleeding across the Canadian border. There's no one thing to point a finger at; not the .gov education system, not TeeWee or movies, not the intarw3bz; it's all around us here, pervading our culture like some horrible brain-leech Matrix, and, like The Matrix, most folks just don't want to wake up. So what can you do? Me, I'll just continue to point and laugh.