Owning and reading books is illegal. Government, in an effort to hinder knowledge, has ordered all books to be burned. An old woman who refused to comply was burned along with her books. Resistance is useless.
This is the premise for Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451. It’s a combination of science fiction and satire. People in the story’s society quit reading because they were distracted by television, fast cars, and loud stereos.
The lessons in Bradbury’s novel are now, more than ever, satirical reflections of our society. A recent study conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau on behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts showed that only 46.7 percent of the adult population reads literature, down from 56.9 percent in 1982 (Bradshaw ix). Even more disturbing is the declining interest in literature among young adults. In 1982, 60 percent of adults ages 18 to 24 were reading literature; in 2002, only 43 percent of 18 to 24 year olds read literature. The only group with a lower reading rate was senior citizens (Bradshaw 26).
The declining interest in literature greatly concerns me for several reasons. First, for perhaps the most egotistical reason, as a writer it is frightening to consider a future where literature is invalid. But that is merely a surface concern. I am most concerned with the benefits that books have to offer that aren’t available through other means.
It’s interesting to consider what changes have occurred over the last twenty years that could have caused the declining interest in literature. Since 1980, we have been introduced to the personal computer, internet, and video games. Cable television has become more advanced, and VHS tapes and DVDs were introduced along with video rental services. As these technologies became more common, they also became more affordable. “A 1999 study showed that the average American child lives in a household with 2.9 televisions, 1.8 VCRs, 3.1 radios, 2.1 CD players, 1.4 video game players, and 1 computer” (qtd. in Bradshaw xii).
The respondents, who were between the ages 18 and 24 in the 2002 survey, are the first generation of adults who were exposed to the products of this technological revolution in their childhoods. This leads me to believe that advances in entertainment technology, and the demands they place on our attention, have caused the declining interest in literature.
I grew up among this generation. Some of my first memories are of watching television. I got a Nintendo for Christmas the first year it came out. We were taught the skills of spelling and math by use of computers in grade school. I was in high school when the internet became popular, and I’ve made use of it ever since.
I am writing to you now because, not only will you grow up among these technologies, but also because your peers will be sons and daughters of a generation who has grown up among them and have consequently become disinterested in literature. I am not writing to profess the evils of these technologies; I believe there are many benefits of making use of them.
First, video games brought my family together more so than dinner. My father, siblings, and I spent countless hours together discovering the secrets of role-playing games and battling wits in competitive games. Video games improved my hand-eye coordination which, in turn, improved my typing skills. Role-playing games improved my reasoning skills and heightened my logical abilities.
The internet is a source of just about anything you could ever want to know. When I had to do a report in school as a child, I had to search through a cabinet filled with drawers of index cards that were organized by subject or author name. Then I had to find the book, read it, and hope it contained the information I was looking for. I was amazed the first time I used the internet and its search engine to do research. I can’t imagine now, after becoming familiar with the internet, going back to the old, inefficient means of obtaining information. I found all of the information I needed for this paper on the internet.
Television also has its benefits. Mainly, it is relaxing and entertaining, and it’s often a good means of vegetation after an exhausting day. It’s also a source of news and information. Television is a good marketing place for books. When Oprah Winfrey endorses a book, it generally soars to the best sellers list. There are also several programs, like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, that showcase interviews that often feature authors in their lineup.
When you consider literature on its surface, it seems its only purpose is to tell a story. If that is the same purpose of most television programs, then what use is literature? I’m writing to explain the benefits that literature can bring to your life, the ways you can be bettered by a book, and how it is an essential tool in your development as an intelligent, cultured, moral, tolerant, self-actualized person.
Aristotle once asserted that “Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.” Poetry, or more broadly, literature, forces us to engage our imaginations and concoct alternate circumstances. Imagination is tool of memory and language. We think in images before we attribute words to describe them.
Reading forces us to engage our imaginations. It requires us to think in a way that is not innate. Children learn language by exposure to it; it is a natural human ability to attribute words to objects. Reading requires doing the opposite: developing words into pictures. It demands an understanding of, not only the meaning of a word, but also what the word means to you.
The ability to understand your own assumptions of the meaning of a word allows you to imagine (concoct alternative circumstances) what meanings others might attribute to a word. This allows you to become a more concise speaker and make your meaning clearer to others. For example, imagine you are going somewhere you have never been, and someone has given you these directions: “Take the Watterson Expressway to I-64 and go north. Get off at the New Albany exit and take a left at the second light. It’s the big red house about a mile down on the right.”
First, if you aren’t from Louisville, it’s unlikely you’ll know that the Watterson Expressway is I-264. Second, even though Indiana is north of Kentucky, I-64 runs east and west. The “second light” probably means traffic light, but suppose you took it to mean street light. If you are color blind then you probably won’t be able to tell which house is red. And lastly, what the person who wrote the directions considers a mile and what you consider a mile could be miles different from each other.
If you can imagine what someone else might think you are saying, then you can make your own words and meanings more concise. Reading helps to develop this skill of imagination.
Another example occurs when you read a book first and then watch the movie based on it. The characters and places aren’t usually what you imagined them to be. That’s because you imagined them differently than the person who directed the movie.
Imagination allows us to critique our actions in past events and question whether a different action would have presented a different outcome. It aids in decision by allowing us to consider possible circumstances.
Business owners are constantly imagining more efficient ways of running their businesses. Teachers are constantly imagining more effective teaching methods. Scientists imagine ways to fight and cure disease. America’s founders imagined a world without religious persecution.
As a writer, I am constantly imagining situations, but, most often, my ideas are spawned by reading something someone else has written. I imagine what would occur if a different character was put into a situation, or if a character was put into a different situation, or even if I was in that situation.
Reading is not an innate ability. The more you read the better you become at it; you can read faster, and you have a better comprehension of what you’ve read. People who read are more likely to understand a contract, instructions, and drug fact-sheets.
Reading also helps to create a better understanding of the world. Unlike in most television programs, characters in books are not always beautiful. Books can help you understand why you chose to do something, or the motives behind someone else’s choice to do something to you. As a teenager, books were my great escape from the characters on television that were beautiful and popular, and the situations that usually just resolved themselves. My life wasn’t like that, and, though the shows were entertaining, they didn’t encompass the aspects of my life that certain books did, like The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
A movie tells a story, and generally has a lesson or two to teach. The difference between a book and a movie is that movies are often so focused on the entertainment factor that they forgo storyline or character development. A book could never survive without all three elements.
Books make two types of promises: intellectual and emotional. The emotional promise is that the action in the book, the external conflict, will keep you engaged and come to some sort of resolution in the end. The intellectual promise is that you will connect somehow with the characters and their internal conflicts, and you will finish the book having changed somehow or contemplating something. Television focuses primarily on the emotional promise: you will be entertained, but you won’t necessarily leave the program with something to contemplate.
Literature is a study of history, philosophy, and human interaction. People who read are more likely to visit museums, attend art shows, and be involved in their communities (Bradshaw xii). Literature interests people in the arts and compels them to feel compassion for others.
In conclusion, I’m not asking you to forgo the technological methods of entertainment; in fact, I encourage you to use them. I simply hope that you can recognize the benefits of reading and integrate it into the list of things you enjoy doing. Everyone should have at least one book that they would refuse to burn. I have thousands. I could be that old woman who refused to give her books up burning away with that which I lived for.
Aristotle. “Aristotle Quotes.” Brainy Quote. 26 Oct. 2005.
Bradshaw, Tom, et al. “Reading At Risk: A Survey of Literacy Reading in America.”
National Endowment for the Arts. Jun. 2004. 60pp. 16 Oct. 2005.