HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Modeern life, like military life, tends to be a hurry-up-and-wait affair, alternating frantic activity with periods of enforced inaction. This can be frustrating, but it can also be useful.
Recently, for entirely commonplace reasons and in company with several other people, I've been required to spend a considerable amount of time sitting and waiting. Though not exactly pleasant, this had value, for it provided an unusual opportunity to do some steady reading. Almost everyone in the group, which included people of many different backgrounds, took advantage of that.
Despite some wails to the contrary, we're not on the verge of becoming an illiterate nation. The last major survey I saw, done in 1986, indicated that only 5 percent of young Americans aged between 21 and 25 can't read at a fourth-grade level or better. Now obviously it would be better if 99 percent of that group could read at the eighth-grade level, say, but even so, a 95 percent basic literacy rate isn't bad.
What bothers me more, and also bothers people whose job it is to figure out who's going to be reading newspapers in the years ahead, is the increasing tendency of literate people not to read -- and especially not to read difficult and challenging material.
This isn't because they're lazy. In survey after survey, people who are asked by newspaper companies why they gave up the paper, or why they wouldn't subscribe, answer that they just don't have the time to read. And if they haven't time to read a
newspaper, it seems unlikely that they'll have time to read history, serious fiction or poetry.
It was recently reported in another survey that 60 percent of American adults don't read a single book in a year.
Of all that has been corroded away by what Walter Lippmann more than 60 years ago called "the acids of modernity," time to read and reflect is one of the most significant casualties. The impact of this is magnified by a reduction in the amount of reading required in schools and, even more noticeably, in colleges.
Colleges boast about their new "core curricula" and the like, but the results are not impressive. Over the years, I've interviewed many young college graduates looking for jobs in the newspaper business, and I have been constantly astonished at how little they had read, and how little they continued to read. This tended to be true whether they had attended Ivy League or public institutions.
Typical was an ambitious and intelligent young man, a recent recipient of a degree in journalism from a four-year university in the state of Maryland, who noted that he liked literature -- but had never heard of T. S. Eliot. He was hired anyway, familiarity with Eliot not being part of the job description, and has gone on to a successful career. But if he ever hires young journalists himself I wonder what he'll ask them in the interviews.
Younger reporters often ask older editors for advice about writing, as though there were some secret that might be suddenly revealed. Older editors are likely to tell them to read, voraciously and omnivorously, but this advice isn't often taken, and journalism is increasingly becoming a trade practiced by non-readers.
There are still students who read, of course, fortunate students who discover William Faulkner by accident in the stacks of the library and sweep through novel after Yoknapatawpha County novel until North Mississippi seems more real to them than their own campus; students carried away by Keats, or Dr. Johnson, or Jane Austen; students who read deeper and deeper into Yeats or Conrad or Eliot and are astounded to find how much more is there than they ever dreamed.
Among these are the students who will make tomorrow's writers, there's little doubt. For there will be more writers, as surely as there will be more oak trees, or more crabgrass. But for whom will they be writing?
Many of the best writers today write for non-readers. They write television scripts or advertising or speeches for politicians, because that's where the market is. But they're probably not happy about that, because writers, all writers, need readers.
Maybe some day the surviving serious readers and writers will become a sort of priesthood or guild, dedicated to preserving their craft and passing it on to the chosen few. But it's possible to hope that more and more of us, tiring of the modern treadmill and the electronic diversions offered to us for entertainment, will reverse the trend of recent years and seize more time to read.
The hardest part is deciding where to begin -- with T. S. Eliot, all those stacked up New Yorkers or even the poor old daily newspaper.
Peter Jay's column appears here each Sunday.