It seems that not even a poster campaign featuring rappers, basketball players, and cartoon characters can provide the encouragement needed to incite young people to read today. In spite of L.L. Cool J’s best efforts, the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress test scores revealed that a shocking 60% of 4th graders scored below their grade level in reading. One recent poll found that almost half of American teenagers read other than assigned school reading less than twice a year. Perhaps the problem is larger and runs deeper than a celebrity can solve by having his picture taken with an open book. Perhaps, indeed, those celebrities are part of the problem. Reading is not declining because schools are worsening, though they are, nor because children cannot relate to the books available to them, as those who have made a bad situation worse sometimes assert. Instead, the problem is, ultimately, at the root of modern society.
Ray Bradbury’s 1951 short story “The Pedestrian” envisions a dystopian future in which taking an evening stroll is a crime. Instead, people are expected to rush to work in the morning, rush back home after the end of the work day, and spend their evenings in the glow of their television sets. While it is, as of 15 November 2014, still legal, to a limited extent, to take an evening stroll, the dystopian future Bradbury envisions is not too far distant from reality. According to a recent report by Nielsen, the average American spends a stunning five hours a day watching television. Americans, it seems, are just too busy to read a good book. They are busy watching the celebrities who pretended to read for a photograph encouraging children to read.
One recent study concluded that living in a household with a 500-book library accelerated the reading levels of children by an average of 3.2 years. Given that a book can be purchased for less than a dollar at most thrift stores, a 500-book library is surely as affordable as a new television. Yet almost every American home has a television, but not a 500-book library. In fact, almost none of the families Americans watch on television have 500-book libraries either.
The problem is quite clear. We live in a society that has developed a disdain for reading. We live increasingly busy and technologized lives. When we return home from the ratrace, we park ourselves in front of the television. Rather than taking a walk, we sit on the couch. Rather than having a lively family dinner discussion, almost half of American children eat dinner in front of the television. A society without home libraries, evening strolls, family discussions, and the sacredness of a communal meal is not a society conducive to the life of the mind. It is a society which has, through more if not through legal fiat, become the dystopia Bradbury imagined.
The helplessness and hopelessness invoked by Bradbury’s story is sure to bite into anyone who laments the loss of the very essence of humanity in the acts of reading, discussing, walking, and eating. This is especially true as there is no easy solution. There is no new curriculum proposed by any particular politician nor any photograph of a celebrity that will solve this problem. There is only the radical countercultural act of taking an evening stroll.