First impressions die hard. My first image of Dana Perino, a staple on today’s cable Fox Television, came in the early 2000s. She was press secretary to then-President George W. Bush, telling National Public Radio that she didn’t know about the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis — America’s cosmic moment of near-nuclear demise.
“Is that like the Bay of Pigs?” Perino asked. In fact, the Crisis happened a year after Pigs, to a far different end.
Perino apparently hadn’t read about how the Soviet Union put offensive muscles on Cuba, daring President Kennedy to respond — a seminal moment of the 20th century. History never read mean its lessons are never learned.
This week America voted in the mid-term election. Many were ill-prepared to decide. Who says? A Greek chorus over the last decade noting that a nation without reading is a people without knowledge — rather, a place of caprice and whim, unable to wisely choose.
Edmund Spenser wrote of “wise words taught in numbers.” Since 1967, the percentage of Americans who even read a newspaper the previous day fell from 76 to 63 (1986) to 41 (2001) to 20 percent (2016) — and less than one in five people now. In 1964, the circulation of U.S. daily papers hit 60 million for the first time in a nation of 192 million people. In 1984, it peaked at 63.3 million papers daily for 236 million people. This year, fewer than half as many subscribed out of 328 million people.
In New York City, site of the worst plunge, the New York Times, Post, and Daily News had a daily circulation of 3.3 million newspapers in 1978. By last year it had collapsed to 1.3 million, down 61 percent. Nothing has replaced them. Arguably nothing can for depth, anecdote and analysis, that river of conversation flowing through a small town or city every morning or (once) afternoon.
The problem, sadly, surpasses the paper to every index of the printed page. This century has killed almost every large brick-and-mortar bookstore chain — B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, Borders. Even mighty Barnes and Noble totters, a reader’s and writer’s last haven. Amazon.com is a reason, the rise of e-books another. The most incomprehensible is that to some reading is felt vaguely déclassé.
A few years back a National Endowment for the Arts study found that the typical 15- to 24-year-old averaged seven weekday minutes on voluntary book, magazine, newspaper, or even online reading. Seven minutes.
Reading’s weekend soared to — 10. I would spend longer getting lost shopping for each week’s groceries, if I weren’t spared that peregrination by my family.
The NEA study showed one in three teenagers dropping out of school, reading scores plunging, and teen non-readers almost tripling in the prior 20 years. “As Americans, especially younger Americans, read less, they read well less,” it said, inferiority leading to less academic achievement. Picture a U.S. of mind-numbed adults who can text message but not analyze: For many aspiring to college, their life is over professionally by the time they turn 16.
How heedless. How needless. And for what? Often students are taught trend, skin-deep, over learning, deep-down. Some educators — unions, administrators, school boards — teach what to think, not how, critically, dispassionately. Often students clasp the iPod, Wii, CD, DVD for an alphabet soup of technology, whose bells and whistles can be as bad as the effect of using it — teenagers sexting, or bloggers hyping hate. The default is video game technology, said an NEA official, that “kicks reading off the cliff” by age 10-14.
Picture a term paper, a book report, The Great American Novel. Paper more than digital helps eye nuance and spot error. Employers in varied fields note how student spelling grows worse, retention briefer, writing more primal. Surveys testify that print helps a writer clarify a plot and reader recall far more than any form of screen — think Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad.
The need for this clarifies in a Starbucks or corner reading room, on a subway, bus, or train, in a college union or high school study hall. How many books exist? Fewer than a decade ago, and fewer than a decade from now. We will have less of what helps us best retain material — the printed and the tangible.
John F. Kennedy grasped how books could illuminate. He had intended to write the history of his own administration. It would have addressed his 1961 blunder of an exile-led attack on Communist forces at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs — also, how after JFK quarantined shipments of Soviet military equipment, the Russians, blinking, removed them to end the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The 35th president never got that chance. In his place, others have written Kennedy’s history. Parents and teachers should have students read about it — as we reread it, too. Above all, we should study the stakes whenever an Election Day nears.
Curt Smith’s newest book, “The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House,” was released this summer. He is a former speechwriter to President George H. W. Bush, Associated Press “Best in New York State” radio commentator, and senior lecturer of English at the University of Rochester. Smith writes twice monthly for Gatehouse Media Newspapers. Email: email@example.com.