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John Freeman on America's Non-Reading Culture

John Freeman—President of the National Book Critics Circle—has a post at his Guardian books blog about the recent report that 25% of Americans didn’t read a book last year.

America has always had one of the lowest literacy rates in the western world. The former book review editor of the LA Times, Steve Wasserman put it bluntly. “Reading has always been a minority taste in America,” he said, “and that’s OK.” But I think what we’re seeing now is something new which has to do with how a culture operates when all values become subservient to that of making money – when reading is not supported either from on top and from below.

I like Freeman’s take—and the aggressive way he points out the flaws in the overall system.

At the same time, the industries which support reading have been ground up and fed through the increasing corporatisation of American life. Book publishers and newspapers have been bought up by giant conglomerates. Publishers, once mildly profitable, have been forced to keep up with blockbuster driven media; newspapers, once wildly profitable, have been used as cash cows. And now that the media companies are done with these newspapers, those same owners are cutting back on all forms of news, including book pages.

This is something I completely agree with. To go a bit further, the rush for sales, for money, for readers, is, in my opinion, resulting in the production of a lot of craptastic books. Books I’m happy no one is reading. Great literature is out there, but you have to wade through mountains of shit to find it, and if people who don’t read a lot get caught up in the shit, I can’t imagine why they’d want to continue spending their time reading. TV is way more entertaining. . .

OK, I’ll get off my soapbox and let Freeman point out some of the good things going on:

In fairness, some attempts are being made to counteract these trends. The National Endowment of the Arts has started up a program called The Big Read, which turns entire cities into book clubs. Online sites and journals like The Complete Review and the new and improved Bookforum have started up to counteract the loss of book coverage in the media. On television, shows like the Colbert Report and the Daily Show dedicate half of their entire program to conversation with an author. And Dave Eggers has turned his McSweeney’s journal into an empire of generosity, starting up drop-in tutoring centers like 826 NYC and 826 Seattle. Visit one of these and it’s hard to doubt the lure of reading and writing.



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