Twain's words seem rather fitting, but apparently seldom considered, during a time when "aliteracy" is sweeping the nation, and has been for over two decades. The term aliteracy, which was coined in the late 1970s by prize-winning historian and Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, refers to one's ability to read, but their propensity not to.
As stated in the Washington Post article, "The No Book Report: Skim it and Weep," in 1991, the NDP Group reported that more than half of all Americans read 30 minutes or more each day. By 1999, this statistic had dropped to 45 percent. A 1999 Gallup Poll revealed that a mere 7 percent of Americans consider themselves to be voracious readers, and 59 percent of those surveyed had read fewer than 10 books the previous year.
The decline in reading among literate individuals sweeps across all demographic sectors, but statistics are especially alarming for the young adult age group. The 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts found that only 42.8 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds read literature in their spare time, compared to 46.7 percent of the entire adult population (a percentage that dropped from 56.9 percent in 1982).
Another Washington Post article, entitled "Fewer People Make Time for Literature, NEA Study Shows" states, "Reading novels, short stories, poetry or plays is a declining activity among all adults, with the youngest segments of the American population showing the most disinterest in the literary world."
With the advent of major technology in the last 20 years, it is becoming more and more possible to avoid reading at all costs. The Internet, video games and television frequently triumph over literary works. News is widely available on television or over the radio, and even books are available on tape or CDs. I observe many students who, time after time, skim reviews or Cliff Notes summaries of books required for school in place of actually reading them - as if reading was some tedious chore, and not an enjoyable and rewarding experience.
Literature equips one with not only a stronger vocabulary, but with tools and experience necessary to be a functional member of society. Reading allows one to see different perspectives and develop empathy for others' situations. More than that, it allows one to discover things about oneself - to get in touch with one's own thoughts and emotions, and it stimulates analysis and discussion. However, when one slides by skimming Cliff Notes or online reviews, he strips himself of the opportunity to gain his own meaning from the literature.
Reading also perpetuates social and cultural awareness and activism. A report issued by the National Endowment for the Arts reveals that adults who read are more likely than non-readers to be involved in charity and volunteer work, and attend cultural events like museum exhibits and performances - activities that may also decline as Americans are reading less and less. Some even estimate that this epidemic of aliteracy is hurting democracy: When people are less informed about issues, they are less likely to contribute knowledgably (if at all) to a functioning democracy.
A frequently used excuse for this lack of reading is that many find little time to escape the rush of their every day lives to immerse themselves in literature free of distraction. However, Jim Trelease, author of "The Read-Aloud Handbook," which emphasizes the importance of reading aloud to children, claims that this excuse is nothing more than a hoax.
"If people didn't have time, the malls would be empty, cable companies would be broke, video stores would go out of business. It's not a time problem, it's a value problem," he says.
Aliteracy may be such an issue because it has quietly seeped its way into our society with little notice. While illiteracy is an identifiable problem with fairly feasible solutions, aliteracy has been somewhat of a secret trend and overlooked problem for over 20 years, and at this point, a solution may be far more difficult to implement. It is crucial that we push in the direction of a more interested, informed and literate society. We must take advantage of the privilege of literacy - something 20 percent of the world's population does not possess.
Change toward a more literate society is crucial, not only for the current generation but for those to come, because aliterates breed aliterates. An adult that is not interested in reading does not set an example of healthy reading habits for their children to follow. Such habits must be set in place during the critical formative years, during childhood and adolescence, and are essential for both collegiate and lifelong success. Youths must become interested in reading now, or they never will be.
The 411 offers information and insight on the teen scene by Katharine O'Hara, a senior at San Ramon Valley High School who spends her free time going to concerts, enjoying her friends, and playing the piano. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.