Pilot Editorial

Monday, December 16, 2002

The lost art of reading

Do us all a favor this Christmas - buy a kid a book. Get someone you love a subscription to a newspaper. Get a library card to stick in a stocking. Write someone a poem.

Of all the worrisome trends going on right now, the one that might be the most dangerous isn't meth labs or gangster rap music.

And it isn't illiteracy - it's aliteracy. An aliterate is someone who can read, but doesn't.

A decade ago, the average American read for a half hour or more each day. Now, less than half of children and adults do any real reading of printed materials by choice. That should scare you - half of the citizens of our country basically do not bother to read anything.

It's hardly any wonder then that only a fraction of the people vote in local elections, take part in their local cultural opportunities, or use the opportunities for higher education that are so plentiful in our community, or understand how their own taxes are figured.

As in most communities, the two libraries in Storm Lake are mostly empty most of the time, or at least are certainly underutilized. There is no longer a single real bookstore in Storm Lake.

"Aliteracy is like an invisible liquid, seeping through our culture, nigh impossible to pinpoint or defend against," the Washington Post said recently.

Aliteracy is the kid who spends hours in front of a video game every evening, but seldom takes his or her schoolbooks out of the bag.

It's parents who find it so much easier to drop their kids off at the movies or grab a video rental as a babysitter instead of reading to them or with them on a weekend.

It's the college student who only skims required texts long enough to pass a test and snatches theme paper material from bits and pieces of someone else's thoughts on the Web, not even realizing the loss of originality in the process. A laptop computer is the new appendage.

We're too busy for books, right?

"The time argument as an excuse for not reading is the biggest hoax of all," writes Jim Trelease, author of the Read-Aloud Handbook. "If people didn't have time, the malls would be empty, cable companies would be broke, video stores would go out of business. It's not a time problem, it's a values problem."

For many of us, "reading" is surfing the net - we get to the point where we can't be interested in a piece of information unless it comes with a colorful little dancing icon or a little mpeg video to pacify us while we skim a screen. A quick e-mail or cell phone call replaces the juicy letter from a friend.

Teachers fight a losing battle as they try to inspire a lifelong love of reading, at least they do if kids go home to parents who never model that behavior, unless it's on the family laptop or depending on the blowdried TV anchor to read the news bites to them.

Reading is the greatest empowerment. One must read with a passion in order to open their mind's eye to the vast store of ideas and imagination around them. If they can read, they will be able to question authority, explore the world and beyond, share their curiosity with others and never grow too old to learn.

The PCs, large-screen TVs, Palm Pilots, video games and DVD versions of the great stories are flying of the shelves this Christmas, and that is all fine and good.

But do the future a favor, and put a good book under the tree for a child you love, too. And do it quick. Before they become extinct.