July 13, 2004
Martin E. Marty
Sighted in The Associated Press (July 9) and, more extensively, in the New York Times (July 8) was a story about the drastic decline in the number of book readers in our society. We are becoming an ever less literate nation. There are still some readers left. Bruce Weber, author of the Times article, concludes: "The one category of book to rise markedly was that of religious texts, with total sales of $337.9 million, 36.8 percent over the previous year."
We pay considerable attention to religion books in Sightings. Publishers and marketers in these zones have much about which to cheer. Sociologists of religion who question "the secularization thesis" have much on which to comment in refutation of the notion that we are, or are tending to become, a "secular society." Critics within the religious fold who examine the titles that sell have less to cheer about; they report that all too many of the books are mindless and rarely nudge religious communities to take up profound or disturbing subject-matter. Still, people are buying "religion" books, and there is no reason to pour lukewarm water on their parade.
No, the deeper religious implications of the story have to do with readership as such. We often stroll into a Borders or a Barnes and Noble and exult in the fact that there are so many books available -- where were their antecedents hiding thirty years ago, pre-megastores? We notice that not everyone is merely browsing in the Starbucks area, and that, on occasion, there are significant lines at the check-out counter. Deduction? The prophecies about the disappearance of print in the computer age were premature or just plain wrong. However, the assault on reading comes not from internet texts, but from distractions such as computer games and electronic entertainment, as well as growing illiteracy.
Indifference to books will have significance for "religious," "faith-full," and "spiritual" individuals and groups. Of course, we know that people dealt with the sacred long before there was writing, and that much that is spiritual gets transmitted by word of mouth. And ours is an age in which people respond to visual stimuli and action, and to printed pages are too boring.
Still, getting your only religious messages from T-shirts, bumper stickers, and slogans, or relying on sound-bites or song lyrics, must have consequences. Dependency on them militates against the effecting of agendas that locate religion in worlds of scientific, economic, political, and artistic complexity. (Maybe things will even themselves out. According to the Weber story, even fewer people are reading at book length in those areas.)
The stories also stress that the biggest drop in readerships is occurring among the youngest adults. In 1982, 59.8 percent of 18-to-24 year olds read literature; by 2002, that had dropped to 42.8 percent. Think about it: this is precisely the age group targeted by advertisers and entertainers. They have much to say and do with what we all see and hear. Somewhere "we" failed them and "they" failed us, in a culture whose educational agencies and techniques are not habituating graduates to read, read, read.