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Editorial: A perfect time for a good book


Sunday, April 08, 2018

Ben Franklin once said, “The person who deserves most pity is a lonesome one on a rainy day who doesn’t know how to read.” More than a century later, some wise person (but not Mark Twain, as the internet would have you believe) added, “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”

Over the past 40 years, the world literacy rate for those over age 15 has risen from under 70 percent to about 87 percent. But here in the United States, a prosperous nation where one would expect a literacy rate close to 100 percent, surveys show that approximately one in seven American adults can’t read and half of the adult population can’t read a book written at an eighth-grade level.

We don’t have a practical, easy solution for illiteracy in America. We know the role parenting plays in a child’s cognitive development and how important it is to invest in early childhood education. We know, as Norma Nelson of Readers 2 Leaders wrote for The Hill recently, that “low teacher pay, segregated schools and equity gaps that continue to fall squarely along racial and income lines 64 years after Brown v. Board of Education are keeping whole generations of children in our country from reaching their full potential.” We know that getting America to 100 percent literacy would require a monumental shift in fiscal priorities and guiding philosophy. We know that, despite so much hard work by so many educators, there are far too many people who on a cold and rainy April afternoon unwittingly have Ben Franklin’s pity.

But what about the people who can read but choose not to?

The Pew Research Center reports that a quarter of American adults have not read a book, or even part of a book, in the past 12 months. Not a single paperback, or hardcover, or e-book – not even an audiobook. And in 2016, a National Endowment for the Arts study found that only 43 percent of adults read at least one work of literature during the previous year. In 1982, when the NEA began tracking literary reading in America, the rate was 57 percent.

It’s not hard to connect the dots. There was no internet in 1982 – no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, no dot-coms. As of 2017, according to a USC Annenberg study, Americans spend nearly 18 hours a week on the internet at home, or 936 hours per year. So how many books could people read if they cut their online time by two-thirds? The average American reads at a speed of 200 words per minute and let’s say a typical book is 75,000 words, or 300 pages. Using those figures, it would take 625 hours to read 100 books. If you think only people with too much free time on their hands read anywhere close to that much, consider the habits of a few busy people, as compiled by Business Insider: Bill Gates reads 50 books a year, Mark Zuckerberg reads at least one book every two weeks, Elon Musk grew up reading sometimes two books a day, Mark Cuban reads for about three hours a day, and Warren Buffett spends five to six hours a day reading.

True, you most likely won’t become a billionaire just by reading more, but you will acquire other, arguably more important, riches.

In a Washington Post column last year, author Philip Yancey described the importance of reading this way: “Books help define who I am. They have ushered me on a journey of faith, have introduced me to the wonders of science and the natural world, have informed me about issues such as justice and race. More importantly, they have been a source of delight and adventure and beauty, opening windows to a reality I would not otherwise know.”

It is for all of those reasons that reading books is perhaps more important now than it has ever been.