Readers Who Don't Read


The other day a reader was so nasty with his complaint, I was tempted to say, "Sir, if you don't calm down, I may have to cancel your subscription."

He was incensed about "too much crime" in The Sun and mentioned a penetrating series by Scott Shane on "An Epidemic of Murder," a two-part probe of youths, drugs and guns in Baltimore. It was clear after a few minutes that the man hadn't read the lengthy pieces that opened clear windows on the depressing tableaux. He was responding to headlines, pictures and the subject. I urged him to read the series.

Some 25 to 45 readers call by phone every day, invited to in this telephone society by a Sun notice box. I talk, take notes and pass on many complaints but sometimes urge articulate readers to try writing a letter to the editor. The invariable answer is, "Oh, I don't have time for writing, the phone's easier."

These educated readers came to mind when I saw the comprehensive September 8 study that reported a sad, well-known conclusion: Up to 88 million American adults can't add items purchased in a store, can't fill out simple forms, can't answer questions of fact in a newspaper story, can't read much at all.

For almost half American adults, reading English is about the same as figuring out Mayan glyphs. The reasons in the survey by the Education Testing Service are many: incomplete education, English is a second language, disabilities. Parents are often indifferent to the written word at home, and so children are too.

As well as those who can't read or write, there are people who can read and can write but don't. They have fewer reasons but more excuses. Reading and writing are not the Holy Grail themselves, but we count on people who use those gifts to get things done, like fighting problems such as illiteracy.

There is hope. My brother-in-law in Troy, New York prefers the almost lost art of the printed word over the phoned word in many situations. David Klingaman writes 500 personal letters and notes a year, many just a paragraph or two: a thank you here, a condolence there, an acknowledgment or a confirmation of plans, an encouragement to the young. With friends, he plays one game exchanging little-used words by letter. He makes a precise, lasting impression.

Reading is not a lost art, yet. Library-book circulation has dropped in the city, where the Enoch Pratt Central Branch is now closed on Fridays, and risen in places where readers have moved to, like Baltimore county. The combined city-Baltimore county library circulation of materials rose from 5.5 million in 1960 (most of it in the city) to 14 million in 1992 (most in the county). Video stores have moved into the picture.

Now we're getting to the point. Television feeds the non-reading habit. It consumes oceans of time and non-energy. It shuts down the working brain. It shrinks attention spans in the real world. In the end, imagination is unneeded, creativity is dulled. This happens to the educated as well as the illiterate.

I like TV myself, but try to control it like any sedative.

Newspapers avoid shaming people on the dangers of television partly because their readers are so hooked on TV. Get a TV schedule wrong, and readers scream. From TV, papers borrow graphics, color, Page 1 promotion skyboxes, stories measured by the line rather than the inch. Meanwhile, book editors and reviewers fight for a little space here and there.

Television boxes sat in 94.2 million American households (98 percent) as of September 1, up 1.1 million from a year earlier, according to Nielsen Media Research. In 1960, there were 47.2 million TV households (88 per cent of American households). American pre-schoolers now watch more than 27 hours of TV a week. As they grow older, the hours increase: 6 hours a day is common. Adults spend more and more time getting fatter sitting on their imaginations. Viewing is above four hours a day for adults, 48 minutes less for children. There's so much time in a day. Newspapers consume 20 minutes a person.

Meanwhile, total weekday daily newspaper circulation has been flat: 59 million copies in 1960 and 60 million copies in 1992. True, the weekly newspaper circulation has more than doubled from 21 million in 1960 to 55.4 million in 1992; book sales are up and magazines proliferate. Still, TV dominates.

Mainly I'm selling reading, writing and arithmetic. The key is that reading books and other materials including newspapers and magazines can be a joy that opens lives. Turn off the TV. Support the libraries and reading programs. Read to your kids. Make them write. Read. Write. Think.

Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.

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