19 Minutes a Day

A recent study from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that the average American spends only 19 minutes a day reading. As opposed to 3.5 hours a day watching TV and playing games.

Back in the late 1970’s I remember sharing with friends a worn-out samizdat copy of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Simple possession of the book, if caught, meant an all-expenses paid trip to Siberia for a few years. The Soviet government knew that books are dangerous, that they help people think for themselves. So did the Nazis, burning books with “unGerman” ideas by Freud, Einstein, Thomas Mann, Jack London, H.G. Wells and many others. The people in Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451 do not read books – books are considered evil and burned because they make people question and think. Instead, people receive their information from television.

In 2015, there is no need to burn books. We, as a society, stopped reading on our own. Actually, it’s worse than “19 minutes” because the average number is skewed by people 65 and older who read close to an hour per day. The “Millennials” (15 to 34 year olds) read only eight (yes, eight) minutes per day on average. They are busy playing video games. As a side note, there is no question that the Millennials have been given a raw deal by the older generation. But perhaps they should take a look at themselves as well: a group that collectively does not read and has an attention span less than a goldfish. If you escape into games and dystopian movies and don’t learn to focus and think for yourself, someone else will make decisions for you.

Perhaps reading is overrated. Perhaps I am a Luddite that does not understand the incredible educational value of gaming and binge TV-watching. But then the National Endowment for the Arts raised this issue eight years ago in To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence. To quote:

To Read or Not To Read confirms—without any serious qualification—the central importance of reading for a prosperous, free society. The data here demonstrate that reading is an irreplaceable activity in developing productive and active adults as well as healthy communities. Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media, they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.”

Things have only gotten worse since then. As Thomas Jefferson observed, “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

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