A man from ancient Rome said it was better to know nothing about a subject than to half-know it. I’m worried that this Republic of ours is set on proving his wisdom all over again. Only, we aren’t even bothering to know 50% of what’s going on. Seems to me we’re mostly satisfied with understanding about 10% of something before we grow bored and turn to the next thing.
I say this based on what I know about the most important knowledge-building habit we have: reading. We’re becoming a nation of functional illiterates scattered along the tracks, incapable of pursuing a train of thought for more than minutes at a time.
The annual survey on time use by the Bureau of Labor Statistics put some proof to something I think we all knew was coming our way. We have let our standards fall so far that this year’s first-time voters are, on average, in the habit of reading for personal interest less than 10 minutes a day.
People age 75 and older read about an hour a day. The habit drops off through each 10-year bracket below that until you get to people ages 35 to 44 years old. They’re reading 12 minutes on Saturdays and Sundays and less than 10 during the week. Younger than that, it only gets worse.
That’s right—the majority of potential voters are reading less than 10 minutes a day. You scared by that? I am.
But I’m not surprised. As a country, we seem to be entirely losing the capacity for long-term thinking. I was asked to write about literacy here, and I’d argue that I am. Not the literacy of being able to sound out the words above a Facebook post. Not the literacy of knowing what LMAO means in a text message. Not even the level of literacy required to read the instructions on your College Boards.
Before I get a bunch of educators mad at me, I’m not saying that mechanical literacy should be taken for granted or that it is anything but fundamental. The decoding of words set on page (or screen) is perhaps the most difficult widespread codified behavior we have taken on in the modern era. And I count myself among those who believe it’s been the most important. To my mind, reading teachers should get as much praise and respect as doctors, and more than most lawyers.
But an adult who absorbs words only through captions, tweets, posts, memes and—at best—smartphone-screen-size articles is not literate. Not in my book anyhow. I’d argue—and not just for the sake of my day job as a novelist—that if we’re not in the habit of reading books or, at least, long-form articles that take us the better part of an hour in the course of an entire day, we are fundamentally damaging our society’s fabric, and our future.
We are becoming a nation of distracted nincompoops who don’t have the patience to bother finding out if lies are lies and—because we have lost the mental capacity to do otherwise—are forced to judge issues on the basis of style and delivery rather than substance and accuracy.
Are you upset about this election? Are you upset about the direction of this society? Then fix it. You’re a reader. You know what reading does for your ability to think things through. Get out there and make this your No. 1 priority. Got a kid? Make her read 20 minutes a day. Got a neighbor who stares at his phone all day? Get him a good book. Volunteer at the library. Volunteer at a school. At the very least, subscribe to a newspaper or magazine that supports long-form journalism and stop reading stuff for free through your screen.
We need to reverse this situation, and quick—before the next class of less-than-10-minutes-a-dayers gets out to the polls.
I may be reading too much into the situation, but I sense we haven’t seen anything yet.
Patterson is the author of more than 147 novels, which have sold a combined 300 million copies