You’ll notice a widget to the right for a site called Shelfari. I saw it in another blog and really liked it, so I got my own shelf. In the process of joining, I accidentally sent an invitation to the site to every single auto-added address in my Gmail account. I was mortified at the realization. But to my amazement, within the next few days, fifty of the maybe two hundred people I’d emailed actually followed the link, joined the site and many now have virtual book shelves of their own. I was heartened by this, the fact that people still care about books enough to share their favorites.
But my email address book tells a different story than the National Endowment for the Arts’ new report, titled “To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence.” The chairman of the NEA, Dana Gioia, summarizes here:
In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts published Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America. This detailed study showed that Americans in almost every demographic group were reading ﬁction, poetry, and drama—and books in general—at signiﬁcantly lower rates than 10 or 20 years earlier. The declines were steepest among young adults. More recent ﬁndings attest to the diminished role of voluntary reading in American life. These new statistics come from a variety of reliable sources, including large, nationally representative studies conducted by other federal agencies. Brought together here for the ﬁrst time, the data prompt three unsettling conclusions:
• Americans are spending less time reading.
• Reading comprehension skills are eroding.
• These declines have serious civic, social, cultural, and economic implications.
Doris Lessing offers an explanation in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature last Friday:
What has happened to us is an amazing invention – computers and the internet and TV. It is a revolution. This is not the first revolution the human race has dealt with. The printing revolution, which did not take place in a matter of a few decades, but took much longer, transformed our minds and ways of thinking. A foolhardy lot, we accepted it all, as we always do, never asked: “What is going to happen to us now, with this invention of print?” In the same way, we never thought to ask, “How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc?”
I agree with Lessing, as I blog, of course. I’m tempted to ask, “doesn’t using the internet involve reading and writing?”
Yes, I realize, it does. But what I find is crucial is that much of the reading and writing on the internet, as democratic and free access as it wonderfully is, is writing absent the editor, even if simply the self-editor. We find ourselves often reading poorly written, unedited blatherings like this one. As writers we escape the editing process entirely. My partner, a professional editor and despiser of blogs, pointed out to me as I whined about the painful editing my recent school paper required, “It’s in editing that you learn to express your thoughts. What’s the point of having great thoughts if you can’t express them clearly?”
What we’re left with is an epidemic of inappropriately used apostrophes. And that’s just the beginning of it. I’m as guilty as anyone – but I am in graduate school, which I hope is a step in the right direction toward sucking it up and editing. And editing. And editing. God, I hate editing.
But back to reading. Salon today unveiled the first I’ve seen of the many best books of 2007 lists. I’ve read none of them, though I plan to in the coming year.
The books I have read this year that I would call my top 10 of 2007 (that is to say, they were not all released this year) are:
1. The Maytrees by Annie Dillard
2. Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America by Michael Bechloss
3. Population 485 by Michael Perry
4. Narrative Medicine by Rita Charon
5. Listening is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project by Dave Isay
6. The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron
7. Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin
8. I Am America and So Can You by Stephen Colbert
9. Letting Go of God by Julia Sweeney
10. Thunderstruck by Eric Larson
I end my list the same way Salon does – what are your favorite books of 2007?