Recently I read somewhere an interesting article about readers and non-readers. The distinction was not between literates and illiterates — that is, between people capable or incapable of reading — but between those who do and those who don’t read books.
Of the latter (“non-readers”) there was what was for me a surprisingly large number, and it was growing. There are quite a few people who do not read a single book in a year, and some who do not read a book for years on end. The non-readers tend to watch videos and stuff. I hope that I myself am living proof that it is possible both to read books and to watch videos and stuff. The author’s focus was the possible correlation of reading books with social class. Sociology can be full of surprises, but not this time. People who read books are on the whole better educated, more financially secure, and of “higher status” than those who do not. The issue of relating correlation and causation, which is always vexing in such “studies,” was probably insuperable here, and I don’t believe it was touched upon. But it does seem to me intuitively correct, not to say obvious, that people who are better off materially are likely also to be better in that all-important branch of spiritual life that is the fruit of serious, habitual reading.
Something interesting happened, though, when I decided that I would like to revisit the article preparatory to writing a blog essay of my own. I could not find it. I could not in the first place remember whether I had read it in print or on-line. When I Binged it — and I consider Binging of higher social status than Googling — I found dozens if not hundreds of items so similar that I was unable to identify the particular piece. The irony did not escape me: I was foiled in my research into changing reading habits by my changed reading habits.
These findings would discourage me, did they not contradict others in which I have more confidence — those of my own Subway Test. (The test actually includes buses as well, though trains and planes require a special metric.) Unusual personal circumstances determined that I became familiar with the London Underground and the Paris Métro well before I knew much about the New York Subway. When my children moved to New York, however, which was quite a while ago now, I became an occasional subterranean traveler myself. What I noticed early on was that in London about one in three straphangers would be reading a book — usually a distinctive orange and white Penguin paperback, suggesting intellectual quality. London readers/riders are not merely numerous but above average in erudition. (I once sat next to someone reading the Elementary Turkish Grammar edited by my friend and colleague Norman Itzkowitz. It was all I could do to restrain myself from telling the guy, but it was way too unBritish.) In Paris there would be a couple of readers in any half-full car, everybody knows that all French books ooze intellectuality. In New York the subway reader was much rarer.
Things could be worse, mind you. My experience with public buses in Italy, although limited, has left me with the firm opinion that Italian bus-riders are not book readers. I only ever saw one reader reading one book: Sesso nel confessionale. This was a scandalous book of the moment, written by a blasphemous journalist who went around various churches making inventive confessions of imaginary sexual sins and then reporting the wildly differing penances imposed. If you think our drug laws are incoherent… but I digress.
Over the past couple of decades the evidence for American literacy has been, let us say, ambiguous. If I judge things from the perspective of my royalty statements, there is little room for hope. On the other hand, when I judge by the Subway Test, books seem to be making a strong comeback. One sees quite a few book-readers, especially if you take an optimistic attitude to riders holding electronic tablets. Most other people are reading something on their tiny telephone screens. Almost everybody under sixty is sporting ear buds, and it is at least remotely possible that the guy with the closed eyes and the rhythmically nodding head is rocking on Jane Austen on Audible rather than Chet Atkins on acoustic guitar.
Indeed I am beginning to believe that the much-maligned hand-held device may prove a stimulus to authors of serious books. At the moment e-book publishers are trying hard to make the pixiled page look ever more like the printed one, but that may change. My brainy granddaughter Sophia, who is studying brain science with other brainiacs at Johns Hopkins, just introduced me to what may be the Next Big Thing in readings: Spritzing. If you check it out you will immediately grasp both the potential and the infuriation. You will probably also agree that although people occasionally survive simultaneous texting and driving, things are unlikely to work out so well with Spritzing.