Everything our generation does is wrong.
We definitely don’t read enough, according to a New Yorker piece by David Denby. According to a Pew Research Center study he quotes, the average American 18-year-old or older reads 12 books a year. The median amount of books read is four, meaning half of those polled read less than four books.
This month, Om Malik wrote a piece for The New Yorker titled, “In the Future, We Will Photograph Everything and Look at Nothing.” The point he tried to make was that we as a society “are all taking too many photos and spending very little time looking at them.”
Both of these articles remind me of those over-40-year-old relatives who seem to be on Facebook more often than I am, posting pictures of their children and pictures of cassettes and pencils and laughing about how kids my age won’t get it. They lament about how my generation won’t experience the “joy” of looking through an encyclopedia because we can just Google it, about how back in their day they played with Lego bricks while we have video games and iPhones.
This in turn reminds me of a dialogue Socrates had in approximately 370 B.C.E.. and verse in the Bible. In “The Phaedrus,” Socrates objects to writing because it will erode memory and lead people to think they had knowledge when in fact they only had data. In Ecclesiastes 7:10 it says, “Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? For thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this.” Which basically translates to, “Don’t ask, ‘how is it that the former days were better than these?’ Because it isn’t wise to ask this.”
Once one looks into the context however, my generation doesn’t look too bad. A Gallup Poll from 1990 found that the average American read 11 books a year with the median at six books. That spiked up to an average of 17 books in 1999, then dipped down to around 14 books until it went back to 17 in 2011. The 28 percent of Americans above the age of 18 did not read any books in 2015.
One of my favorite books advocates for novel-reading in times when it was uncommon. “Nothanger Abbey” by Jane Austen has a wonderful passage about how she is personally offended when someone calls a novel a book. The worst character in that novel is one who laughs novel-reading off as many laugh off reality television today. Austen wrote the book for the press in 1803 – though it was not published until 1816.
But look at what we read now. A large part of my relationships are in the form of texts and emails. Outside of books, how many of us read articles on our Facebook feed, or our favorite websites?
Also, it is this millennial generation that made J.K. Rowling the first billionaire author. It is this millennial generation that is ridiculed for its intense fandom support.
Is there a benefit in learning to patiently sift through encyclopedias for information? Probably. It also has been shown that our brains dedicate less effort to remembering things we can just Google and we specifically do remember what we cannot Google. Every advancement society makes is going to lead us away from skills we used to find important but are now either specialized skill sets or automated. It is because I don’t have to hunt in order to feed myself that I am able to dedicate time to higher cognitive function and higher productivity.
As George Orwell wrote, “Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.”
While we should respect the virtues of the past, we must also embrace the evolution of the future.