Read any good books lately? That used to be the overworked, sometimes joking, opening line for starting a conversation. Not so much any more. Because reading is dying. No, really, I'm not kidding. And the reduction of that activity bodes ill for society.
I won't bore you with a batch of statistics. If you're interested, the numbers are easy to find, for researchers have studied and measured this decline for a long time. What they have found is that the young, over at least the last decade or so, have read less and less for pleasure. And if you don't read for pleasure when you're young, you're not likely to pick it up when you are older. And if you don't read for pleasure, you are less likely to be a skillful reader, and what could be a lifelong joy tends instead to be a dull chore, employed only when absolutely necessary.
High percentages of persons with low reading skills are found among the unemployed and among those in prison. This is a broad statement, and there is certainly a variety of possible explanations as to why it might be so, as well as exceptions to the general rule. But it seems clear that those with low reading skills are cut off from an avenue to a more productive life, not to mention a richer and far more enjoyable life.
Studies show that the decline in reading has been accompanied by a decline in reading comprehension. You don't have to look very far, perhaps only to reader comments in your newspaper or on social media, to see examples of this. Reading loses a lot of its potential for a better life if you're inefficient in processing what you read and fully understanding it. But the more you read, the more efficient you're likely to become at it.
A number of reasons for the decline have been suggested. Television seems to have had a negative effect from the beginning of its rise to ubiquity. Now if you want to read, you often have to compete with the distraction of one or more television sets in the home. Or in the gymnasium, the doctor's waiting room, or any of many places where you might rather have peace and quiet. If those around you are not watching the TV screen, they are likely to be staring at the small screen of a cell phone, talking to someone on that phone, or busily playing a video game.
Video games and cell phones seem to be among the major distractors from reading by the young. Many children, right at the age when devotion to reading for pleasure might be nurtured, are devoted instead to video games. Video games can have their own desirable effects, but the discouragement of reading is not one of them.
Experts on the subject all seem to agree that children are most likely to treasure the ability to read, and to become proficient at it, if they are read to by adults and if they grow up in a home where books are plentiful. Children of poor families are less likely than others to be surrounded by books, thus suffering still another obstacle on their way upward.
I was one of the fortunate ones. My family was poor, television was unheard of, and we didn't have a radio. Entertainment was mostly either talk or reading, and we somehow had access to dog-eared books and ragged magazines. We read exciting passages aloud to each other, a habit that stuck with me. Later I sometimes drove my wife to distraction by frequently saying, "Listen to this," and then reading something aloud to her that I found amazing or especially well written. She bore this habit of mine with remarkable patience but, although she was a constant reader herself, was too kind to bombard me with excerpts in return.
We don't all have to enjoy the same things. But I strongly recommend the joys and the benefits of reading, and hope that parents will read to their young and make books readily available. They will be building a lifelong advantage and pleasure. I'm proof of this. If you see a wrinkled, white-haired old geezer dining alone in a restaurant, back to the television, open book propped at an angle on his wallet and held open by his cell phone, that'll likely be me. And if you want to stop by and say hello, you'll be welcome. Really. I'm always willing to postpone pleasure for the sake of civility. As long as it's only briefly.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."