Closing the book: humanity’s declining literacy

Closing the book: humanity’s declining literacy

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When it comes to humanity’s reading habits, official surveys don’t resemble sober data models so much as wide-eyed prophets of doom, frantically waving clapboard signs bearing the legend “THE END IS NIGH”. Ever since the Lumiere brothers started terrifying audiences with short movies of trains arriving at La Ciotat station all the way back in 1895, people have been predicting a literary apocalypse where the sub-literate masses would finally abandon the written word en masse. By 1937, when cinema had reached somewhat headier artistic heights than the trainsploitation flicks of the 19th century, Gallup polls in America found that 29% of those questioned were currently reading a book. By 1955, when television and Elvis Presley were truly established, this number had crashed down to 17%. Possibly embarrassed by these low numbers the pollsters started massaging the questions somewhat; “are you reading a book” became “have you read a book in the last six months” and the numbers bounced back in a reassuring fashion. It’s amazing what you can hide in the small print.

Nearly a quarter of the way through the 21st century, the distractions are almost too many to count. According to the National Literacy Trust in Britain only just over 50% of 8–18-year-olds read for pleasure. In a world of screens and with Google to provide answers to any idle question, it’s no surprise that the numbers continue to erode year in year out. This is of course deeply concerning to the literati, but thankfully the worst-case scenario is not likely to be the extinction of the written word and the first step on a chain that will lead to humanity devolving into bestial cave-dwelling Morlocks. Instead, sociologists have speculated that eventually reading books for pleasure will end up the way it was before the mass-literacy of the 19th century: the entertaining diversion of an erudite minority. Only this time around it won’t be education or privilege as the separating factor but interest. To put this potential literary apocalypse in rather less alarmist language than it’s usually phrased, book readers would become the equivalent of jazz aficionados. That said there would still be sociological changes to be weathered. According to some experimental psychologists, people who primarily read have different mental processes to those who primarily view visual content. How a full-scale shift from one to the other would affect society on a macro-level is hard to predict.

For an understanding of the changes that our shifting reading habits could lead to, it’s worth exploring how humanity developed reading and writing to begin with. Whilst as a species we’ve been enjoying curling up with a good book for thousands of years, in genetic terms it’s been the blink of an eye. As a result, we can only read at all thanks to our brains blithely repurposing Neolithic-era interior connections designed for more practical activities, such as distinguishing hanging vines from venomous serpents. Unsurprisingly it’s from this visual level that writing first exploded, with pictorial alphabets like Egyptian hieroglyphics or Sumerian cuneiform. As these written languages developed, they moved from strictly visual representations into a complicated mélange of ideas, actions and sound. If this sounds incredibly complicated to read that’s because it was; the only modern parallels are Chinese or Japanese written characters, which are far more streamlined in every practical way. There were hundreds of combinations to learn and learning to write with them had more to do with muscle memory than did languages based on the Roman alphabet, due to their students learning through copying out the symbols over and over again.

Cuneiform and hieroglyphics were only meant to be written or read by the extreme elite (generally priests and the like). It was only with the emergence of the phonetic Greek alphabet, which was the first alphabet in which letters recorded every significant sound element in a spoken language in a one-to-one correspondence, that reading broke out of the symbolic. In ancient Greek if you could sound out a word letter by letter you could spell it, which was an unthinkably large leap forwards compared to symbol-based languages. Greek children would typically learn writing in just under three years (quicker than our current schooling, though by contrast the English alphabet is somewhat less straightforward). Whilst literacy levels were obviously nowhere near comparable to present-day levels it was still a great democratisation of knowledge and a massive step towards supplanting oral tradition as the exclusive method of preserving information, which had a correspondingly huge effect on the way we think.

When a child learns to read, scans of the brain show that they have to utilise more of the brain than adults do, with large quadrants of both sides of the brain lighting up. It’s only when they learn to recognise letters that the amount of the brain used shrinks. Once the child starts reading fluidly the right side of the brain bows out completely with the so-called “ventral route” in the left hemisphere taking over completely. Whilst you might expect that using less of the brain might be a bad thing, instead the fact that less brain power is required frees up mental space for a fluent reader to impart more of their own thoughts, impressions and feelings whilst reading. Far from exercising the mind, reading allows the brain to relax in ways that audio-visual content doesn’t. In this relaxed state it is easier to enter into a dialogue and successfully interrogate the information you’re absorbing. In the words of Marcel Proust, reading is “to receive a communication with another way of thinking, all the while remaining alone, that is, while continuing to enjoy the intellectual power that one has in solitude and that conversation dissipates immediately”.

To reiterate, we’re in no danger of returning to the oral tradition anytime soon, but if we let the habits of reading slip away further and further then we’re cutting off one of the few ways we have left to be alone with ourselves. Our brains (and the world) are already dangerously overstimulated, and the ability to think and feel in peace with ourselves is a luxury that it feels dangerous to go without.

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