This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

February 28, 2008 - reading is paying attention

Hank Long, a buddy of mine who happens to be the director of the Englewood Public Library, sent me a provocative trio of articles about reading.

The articles included, "The End of Literacy? Don't Stop Reading," by Howard Gardner; "Not Reading An Iota in America," by Randy Salzman; and "The Dumbing Of America: Call Me a Snob, but Really, We're a Nation of Dunces," by Susan Jacoby. All appeared in the Washington Post on February 17, 2008 (and elsewhere).

Gardner notes that every time there's a big change in media, the leading lights of the day both celebrate the human gain, and mourn the human loss. Plato, for instance, arguably one of the masters of the trendy new art of writing, "feared that written language would undermine human memory capacities (much in the same way that we now worry about similar side effects of 'Googling')."

Theologians also worried about literacy. Back in the 15th century, people started reading the Bible themselves, instead of asking priests to interpret it. One of the consequences of literacy was the Protestant revolution.

On the other hand, libraries preserved the stories, both myth and history, that would otherwise have been lost. Literacy encoded learning.

Salzman, meanwhile, wrote about sitting in a juvenile court waiting room, a place without books, where the dispirited parents and children sat staring, vacant. As for himself, Salzman had brought, "Reading Lolita in Tehran." It was about Muslim women in Iran who read -- and by reading, faced being jailed, beaten or raped.

Salzman recalls "Charlottesville bookstore owner Kay Allison and her wonderful work in Virginia with 'Books Behind Bars,' a prison book-donation program. Allison says she gets about 20 letters every day from prisoners who write to her in awkward block letters, desperately seeking books. Every day. Using their literal 'down time,' they seek to recover reading and thinking and connecting to the world outside -- not unlike the women in 'Reading Lolita.'"

Finally, here's an arresting passage from Susan Jacoby:

"People accustomed to hearing their president explain complicated policy choices by snapping 'I'm the decider' may find it almost impossible to imagine the pains that Franklin D. Roosevelt took, in the grim months after Pearl Harbor, to explain why U.S. armed forces were suffering one defeat after another in the Pacific. In February 1942, Roosevelt urged Americans to spread out a map during his radio 'fireside chat' so that they might better understand the geography of battle. In stores throughout the country, maps sold out; about 80 percent of American adults tuned in to hear the president."

Here's the kicker: "According to a 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper, nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made. More than a third consider it 'not at all important' to know a foreign language, and only 14 percent consider it 'very important.'"

Jacoby's point is that Americans barely have any attention span left. She blames video.

She cites a Harvard study that "between 1968 and 1988, the average sound bite on the news for a presidential candidate -- featuring the candidate's own voice -- dropped from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds. By 2000, according to another Harvard study, the daily candidate bite was down to just 7.8 seconds."

I find myself more in agreement with Gardner. I don't think we're all getting dumber. I think we're still trying to wrap our neural networks around a host of inputs undreamnt of by our DNA.

We're smarter in some ways, not so smart in others.

But after pondering all this, it's hard not to agree with both Salzman and Jacoby: it can't hurt to pay more attention.

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