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  • Robert Farago

Reading is Dead

Love's labor lost?

Who reads anymore? Who can read? According to, more than half of the U.S. population can’t read above a sixth grade level. Half of those can’t read. It’s getting worse. So that’s it. I’m calling time of death for literacy.

Like the murder of Samuel Ratchett, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Students. Parents. Teachers. Unions. Drug dealers. Welfare providers. The makers of high fructose corn syrup. And so on.

None of these actors could have done their part to stab literacy to death if it weren’t for an enormous, technologically-driven cultural shift. Sherman, set the way back machine for 1772.

At our country’s founding, some 95 percent of the non-slave gen pop were literate – more than double the rate back in Blighty. As a result, colonists had a different mindset than class-bound Britain and today’s woke know-nothings.

"Almost every man is a reader," wrote the Reverend Jacob Duche in 1772. Duche didn't have to go far from his church at 3rd and Pine Streets, to find evidence to support this observation. "The poorest laborer upon the shores of the Delaware thinks himself entitled to deliver his sentiment in matters of religion or politics with as much freedom as the gentlemen or scholar... such is the prevailing taste for books of every kind..."

In 1776, five-hundred-thousand copies of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense hit the streets – in a country with a population of 2.5m. For the numeracy challenged, that’s one copy for every five adults. The impact of Paine’s Brit-bashing tract was, well, here we are, aren’t we?

Living in a country where the pen is no longer mightier than the sword. Or the selfie. Even the people who can read don’t want to read.

Last year, the global film industry scooped-up $95.45b in gross revenue. Social media banked $226b. Video games racked-up $347b. The worldwide publishing industry generated a relatively paltry $76.14b.

No surprise there. In case you didn’t notice, reading’s gateway drugs – print magazines and newspapers – are a dead media walking.

Further up the food chain, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) reports mass market book revenue dipped 35.7 percent in January. Hang on!

Updating that graphic, a Pew publishing industry poll says the number of adults who read a print book sank to 65 percent in 2020. That’s a ten percent drop during the Pandemic, when the populace had an ideal opportunity to hunker down with a book.

If you’re trying to reconcile low literacy rates with this Pew poll, rest assured the question put to 1,502 adults expanded the definition of “reading” to include listening to an audiobook. Which now accounts for 30 percent of all “book” sales, and growing fast.

People aren’t reading because it’s not as much fun as watching and listening. More than that, they don’t have to read. Two words about that: voice recognition. Here are a few more I prepared earlier:

We tend to think of reading as a passive activity (e.g., “curling up with a good book” or studying for school). Literacy is only one half of text-based communication. Graphicacy – the ability to write – makes reading a two-way street.

Stick a fork in it. Thanks to voice recognition, writing’s just as dead as reading.

When YouTube’s 2.5b active users search for digital dopamine, they can press the little on-screen microphone button, say “Plato’s cave allegory” or “latest K-Pop” then choose a thumbnail to spool-up their desired video education/entertainment. Or ask Siri or Alexa to find it for them.

You can now access social media apps, shop on Amazon, get directions, make phone calls, send texts, “write” gmails, play video games, watch movies or listen to music or a Wall Street Journal article without typing a single character.

Comprehension-wise, reading is generally more efficient than listening (250 to 300 words per minute vs. 150 w.p.m). That assumes the comprehension-seeking reader in question’s reading above a sixth grade level. Or exists/knows how to read.

Maybe that’s why more than a billion users doom-scroll TikTok every day without typing a single character. (NB: reading isn’t a cure, apparently.)

How low can literacy go? Two words for that: artificial intelligence. You don’t type questions to a robot. You don’t read its reply. There’s a reason AI interfaces are called chatbots.

“Hey GPT! Any emails I need to know about?…. Reply. Tell him we’ll have the project done by Thursday. Respectful tone, usual bullshit.”

Reading is becoming an esoteric art for a smaller and smaller group of initiates. Like… Latin Mass. The day’s coming when illiterate men will pretend they’re reading a book in their dating profile picture, with a gas-powered car in the background.

As for writers like me and readers like you, we’re like Batman and Joker. I made you, you made me. “How childish can you get?” the Joker asks the Caped Crusader. Watch this space. Very few others do. Want to. Or can.

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