Dumb and Getting Dumber


Memo To Terrorists: If your evil agenda that we are always warned about includes sending suicide bombers into crowded American retail outlets (as one terror analyst on Fox News recently speculated), do yourselves and your cause a favor and stay away from the large book store chains. You will only find a slim handful of customers inside and, as an astonishing new report indicates, no one is really going to care if a bunch of books go up in a Jihad-inspired pyrotechnic display.

The chain book store nearest my home is the Brand Books at the corner of Broadway and Brand Boulevard in Glendale , California . It's an ugly fa'ade, green glass shaped like a wire-adorned bowl jutting two stories into the sky.

Passing through the entrance, to your right is the caf' where you will find teens and twenty-somethings jealously guarding a slim handful of tables. They sip their multi-flavored coffees and lazily graze through magazines that they have no intention of purchasing.

The caf' is always busy. But the amazing thing is this: the book aisles, the areas of floor space actually reserved for books--not DVDs, CDs, greeting cards, bags of ground coffee, magazines, video games, even stuffed plush animals, for God's sake--no, the actual book aisles in this so-called book store are never crowded. Never. If John Walsh flashed your mug on America's Most Wanted last night, just hang out in the book aisle at Borders and no one will ever find you.

After patronizing this particular Borders store for over a year, I came to one conclusion: People simply aren't reading anymore, unless it's a glossy magazine, the liner notes on a CD, or some monosyllabic text message on a cell phone.

I'm not going to get all smug about it, but a report released this week by the National Endowment for the Arts proves that my conclusion was on the money.

'We have a lot of functionally literate people who are no longer engaged readers,' NEA chairman Dana Gioia told the Associated Press. 'This is no longer a case of 'Johnny Can't Read' but 'Johnny Won't Read'.'

According to the NEA report, the number of non-reading adults increased by over 17 million between 1992 and 2002.

'Reading At Risk,' the title of the NEA study, was based on statistical data gathered for a Census Bureau survey of 17,000 adults. The numbers are astonishing.

In 1992, 72.6 million adults in the United States did not crack open a book. That's a fairly gasp-inducing number itself, but it gets worse by 2002, when the number of those who refuse to read a book increased to 89.9 million.

89.9 million. Just stop and think about that for a minute. I know there's a lot to be said here about the law of unintended results with reference to the booming electronic media changing the way we acquire knowledge and information, but I can't help but believe that those 89.9 million Americans are not getting smarter and wiser by eschewing books and surfing the net.

Of the Americans who identified themselves as readers in the NEA report, only 47 percent said they read 'literature' in 2002 (fiction, poetry, plays). The numbers are really bad news among adult men: only 38 percent bothered with any type of literature in 2002.

Adding to the hair-raising NEA report is a study published by the Book Industry Study Group in May that reveals 23 million less books were sold in the United States in 2003 from the year before.

So here we are, the country that has wrapped itself up in the mantle of moral, ethical, and intellectual superiority, a tribe increasingly cozy with the idea of global domination, and we can't get up off our lazy asses and get down to a bookstore and buy a book . . . and read it.

What is wrong with you people? Do you think 500 channels of crap on your broadband TV signal is making you smarter? Do you believe the plethora of information on the internet is earning you extra brain cells every time you boot up? It's called information overload, folks. You are forgetting more than you absorb.

'We Americans suffer from an enforced ignorance,' film maker Michael Moore told the British press earlier this year. 'We don't know about anything that's happening outside our country. It's embarrassing.'

Well, judging from the NEA and Book Industry Study Group reports, we don't know much about what's going on domestically, either.

'(Americans) are possibly the dumbest people on the face of the planet,' Moore concluded.

Not yet, Michael. But we're trying to live up to that promise as fast as we can. We'll get there soon. I swear it to you.

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Rodger Jacobs's picture
Columns on STR: 14

Rodger Jacobs is a screenwriter, freelance journalist, and an award-winning writer and producer of feature documentaries.