Why We Believe Reading is a Civic Duty
Books have lost their audience.
The trend is a downward slope no one expects to turn around. Every year, fewer and fewer people report having finished a book. Our lists of leisure time pursuits often do not include “reading a book.” Books are losing their audience.
Politicolor is an act of resistance in this regard. Few of us here chase the latest trend. Most of us always have a book we’re reading. We have a shared belief that reading is a critical civic habit.
We have no plans to quit sharing book recommendations or talking about the brilliant things we read. However, these headlines about reading suggest we should also talk about the trend we are doing our best to resist.
The Trend to Leave Books Behind
In 2018, The Washington Post put the latest numbers in the context of all those that had come before them:
The National Endowment for the Arts reported in 2015 that “the share of adults reading at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the prior year fell from 57 percent in 1982 to 43 percent.”
Pew Research and Gallup had both presented results showing that “the share of adults not reading any book in a given year nearly tripled between 1978 and 2014.”
In September of this year, Pew Research published their latest findings, “Roughly a quarter of American adults (23%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form.”
Some of us still consider ourselves readers but admit that we don’t read like we used to. It’s not hard to imagine that our gradually shrinking reading habit makes it a little easier for bad information to travel faster and easier than it should.
We have to read like it is a civic responsibility, a habit that sustains democratic life.
The Civic Responsibility to Keep Reading
We tell young people that “reading takes you places.” With a good book, you can see the world. But, reading can also help us understand the moment we are in, the challenge we face, or how a proposed solution might work.
For this reason, our reading habits reflect our civic life too.
Through the pages of a book, we can imagine worlds that we can’t see and connect with the people there. Reading helps us stay connected to the arc of time, the longer story arc of American democracy.
When we read, we step away from the firehose of information available online today and participate in knowledge sharing. For this reason, Dana Gioia added a concern for our civic life to his preface to the 2005 Reading at Risk report from the National Endowment for the Arts:
“More than reading is at stake. As this report demonstrates, readers play a more active and involved role in their communities. The decline in reading, therefore, parallels a larger retreat from participation in civic and cultural life.”
Our reading habits build a capacity to see the relationships between ideas, people, and places. The perspective and understanding we find in the books we read equip us to disrupt the worst tendencies of our past. We start to see innovative approaches to the future.
The Civic Habits We Practice by Reading
Learning from the experiences of others
Reading is a way to learn from people, cultures, and events that we will never encounter anywhere else. A reading habit that includes a diverse list of authors makes it possible to see the world again through someone else’s eyes.
Neil Gaiman tells us that “Ideas—written ideas—are special.” When we witness these written ideas, we see the history of humankind. Written ideas make it possible to:
“Transmit our stories and our thoughts from one generation to the next. If we lose them, we lose our shared history. We lose much of what makes us human.”
We need to read to understand who we are.
Shaping our perspective with deliberation and purpose
Some titles make it possible to get lost in another place or another time. The longer we spend in these distant places, the more we wonder what we would have done. A good reading habit also deepens our understanding of our own values, priorities, and strategies for problem-solving.
Scott McLeod writes about how comics work. In a discussion of how different comic styles work, he offers a comparison that’s useful to consider here:
“Thus when you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face— you see it as the face of ANOTHER. But when you enter the world of the CARTOON—you see yourself.”
A movie, a TV show, your favorite YouTube channel, or even the nightly news presents other people’s stories. You consider what they did and why. When we read, we invest ourselves in the story. Sometimes we imagine ourselves to be part of the story. Sometimes we recognize personalities or situations we have known.
We need to read to challenge what we think we know about ourselves.
Exploring and discovering more about what we know
Reading a book requires us to step away from the firehose of information gathering. This reprieve makes it possible to participate in knowledge sharing instead.
In a 2008 article for The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr borrowed a concern from Richard Foreman, a playwright who observed that the pressure of information overload had created “pancake people.” Connected to an ever-expanding network of information via a Google search, we become people who are “spread wide and thin.” The title of Carr’s article asked, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and allowed many readers to suggest that today’s technology is the problem. Carr addressed his call-to-action to readers, not software developers. He asked us all to reclaim the tradition of carrying our own “complex, dense, and ‘cathedral-like'” knowledge of the world.
A well-written book can transform even ancient history into an open inquiry. When we make an inquiry our own, we can appreciate the complexity of a problem and linger longer over the details. We may even find ourselves imagining that we are in a conversation with the author or particular characters. We get to practice looking at the world in a whole new way.
We read to look closer at the foundations of what we know and how those foundations were made in the first place. We read and marvel at the architecture of what we know.
The Best Reason to Keep Reading
Standing against a disheartening trend might be enough of a good reason to read. Preparing a good defense against “pancake people” also sounds worthwhile. But, the best reason to keep turning pages is that reading is the ultimate act of thinking together.
When we read, we see people and events that we thought we knew and see them with either fresh eyes or a beginner’s mind. We hear voices from beyond our own limited experience too.
A healthy democracy requires certain habits of mind. This makes reading as necessary to us as exercise.