Where have all the readers gone?

These two books will be joined by a third in Fall 2016...all of them in search of that rare and elusive Reader!

These two books will be joined by a third in Fall 2016…all of them in search of that rare and elusive creature, The Reader!

Count the books in your house – the books in plain sight, not the ones buried in boxes. Then count the number of books you bought.

Finally, count the number of books you actually read last year – books, not magazines, websites or anything else.

If you are like most people, these numbers will graph a steady slide toward personal illiteracy.

I’m old enough to keep buying interesting books, despite a pile that continues to grow. Someday I will find the time to read them.

As an author, I write books I want other people to read, so I also feel compelled to support colleagues and the publishing industry.

As a university and college teacher, however, I am deeply troubled by the inability of my students to read quickly. Given all the money and effort the school system spends on literacy, books should not be foreign objects. Nor should reading be a difficult activity.

My students are assigned about ¼ of the reading I had as an undergraduate. Their protests about how much there is and how long it takes to read it grow every year. Match this to fewer and shorter essays than I used to write – and epically bad essay examinations – and their downward graph toward illiteracy mirrors the downward slide in the number of books sold these days.

It’s not that e-books are taking over, either. People hardly buy books anymore. Even fewer read them. My e-book sales are almost non-existent and I am told this is a common complaint. Canada’s one large book retailing chain stocks as much other stuff as it does books and displays it much more prominently.

Simply put, we are no longer a nation of readers – at least not of more than 1000 words in a row. Anything longer is skipped over like those Internet terms of service agreements, jumping to the agree button at the end.

Academics of course have coined a term for this – apparently we now live in a post-literate society. We communicate in other ways than words. Images (worth a thousand words, remember?) flash across our screens and lure our eyes away from the solidity of a book. We now have the intellectual attention span of squirrels – and it shows.

Yet the irony is palpable. All around the world, education (especially for girls and women) is seen as the key to sustainable development and a better future. Parents sacrifice themselves and their future to pay the school fees for children who often are forced to live at a distance to attend.

Literacy – reading books and writing – are at the centre of this passion for education. Yet here at home our literacy indicators continue to slide. Manitoba sits close to the bottom of the national average and fingers are thus happily pointed at our teachers and our education system.

I suggest the fingers are pointed in the wrong direction. Children learn what they live with more than what they are taught. The same parents who spent hours reading aloud to toddlers are never seen book in hand by their teenagers. If there are bookshelves, they hold other things or dusty artifacts, not a library of books waiting to be read.

When there is dinner table conversation, it is fuelled by Facebook or current events, not by the book someone is reading. We know how to read (and to write), but like physical muscles grown flabby with lack of use, our literary muscles are out of shape.

At school (college or university) and at work, this has a direct effect on performance. Given the limited time for an assignment, any student who can finish the reading quickly has more time left to actually do the work that is graded. A plodding reader is also often a slow writer, so the penalty is multiplied.

Vocabulary is similarly affected. Even the words that are learned by hearing them are misspelled in hilarious ways. (In one recent Facebook example, “gender parity” was spelled “gender parody” instead!) Spell check doesn’t help if brain check is disabled by lack of practice.

At work, employees can’t process what is written as quickly as they should – and write garble that is misunderstood by the people who have to read it. All this wastes time and creates inefficiencies, frustrations and mistakes.

So read, read as though your life depended on it. Read in front of the children. Read on the bus. Read on your work break. Read in the evening instead of surfing the waves of Internet foam.

It will hurt at first, just like any good workout should. But it will make all the difference in the end!

Peter Denton’s sixth book, Live Close to Home, will be ignored in bookstores everywhere in Fall 2016. This column first appeared in the Globe and Mail.

Technology and Sustainability: Postscript

Book launch of Technology and Sustainability at McNally Robinson's (Winnipeg), 28/11/2014.  Note the mug!

Book launch of Technology and Sustainability at McNally Robinson’s (Winnipeg), 28/11/2014. Note the mug!

In honour of St. Patrick’s Day and with fond memories of The Dubliner in Washington, DC, here is the Postscript to Technology and Sustainability:

“Better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” —James Joyce, “The Dead,” in Dubliners

I always seem to think better in an Irish pub. So when I found myself in Washington, D.C., during Hurricane Sandy, with everything on the Hill shut down, the fact that the only place close by to eat was an Irish pub named The Dubliner seemed propitious.

The name, of course, reminded me of James Joyce’s famous collection of short stories, which I had not read for some time. Drawn back to his notion of “epiphany,” I found this epigraph and placed it in the eye of the storm in which I have found myself in the past year, of which Sandy was merely the latest and most physical example.

The impulse in January 2012 to fling out into the world what had long been brewing in my mind had led, within a few months, to the publication of Gift Ecology: Reimagining a Sustainable World. Two weeks to the day after the launch in October, I found myself in the middle of Hurricane Sandy, having come to Washington for civil society consultations with the United Nations Environment Program (RONA) on the follow-up to the 2012 conference in Rio de Janeiro (Rio+20). En route, I had participated in PowerShift 2012 in Ottawa, with hundreds of younger people who eyed my whitening hair with tolerant amusement.

With all this swirling about me, and with consultations cancelled and nothing to do, I found myself in the pub, pulling out the notebook to try and outline the book on technology and sustainability I had promised my students (and myself) for a decade that I would write.

So from afternoon into the evening, as the winds rose and the rain fell harder, that feeling of an impending epiphany grew. Pages were filled with scrawl and, just as I faltered toward the end, the first chords of the live music rang out, and the moment became what Joyce himself had described.

Things became even more clearly focused later that night when, at my request, musician Brian Gaffney recalled and performed a powerful song I had only heard performed live once before – in 1980, in a small pub on the outskirts of Dublin. The lyrics of “Only Our Rivers Run Free” drove home the point of Gabriel’s epiphany:

We mourn what was, we wish for what we will never see, and so we miss the possibility of the moment.

To be human means to live toward possibility, to embody potential for growth and difference and change. In an atomistic age, it is easy to feel isolated and separate; in a mechanistic age, it is just as easy to fall into patterns of thinking and living that are linear and therefore give the impression of both control and predictability. In such a view of life, hope requires validation, as possibility mutates into probability and choices are weighed in the balance of anticipated (and immediate) results.

It is interesting to see social networking and the internet opening our local lives to possibility from a distance, from the outside. There is even more possibility through opening our lives to what we find within ourselves, as we travel inward to the source of Life and relation that finds itself expressed in everything from religions and spirituality to art, poetry, music and love.

All these things become creative expressions of the possibilities that humans embody, outside of the predictability of linear systems. Life is an unfolding dynamic, and sustainability is anything but a three-legged stool.

Embracing the epiphany of Gabriel, the main character of “The Dead,” means living the day in light of what it brings, instead of lurking in the shadows of what we wanted it to bring. It means understanding what we say, think and do in the larger context of a hope found not in our own lives but within the universe of relations, a universe in which we are not alone, no matter how alone we might feel. It means living against the tide of an age in which denial is paired with despair.

To quote another Irish author, in William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” our age is marked by the fact that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Ultimately, sustainability is about creating hope, not simply deciding what to do.

Measurements are retrospective; they are how we count what has already happened. As a result, they are never predictive. The more variables in any situation and the more complex the system, the less we can extrapolate toward any future situation. Think about weather forecasting – as long as you can explain today why you were wrong yesterday, you keep your job, but even on the flat prairies, weather forecasts 12 hours out are often completely inaccurate.

So, to William and to Kaley, who worked through a hurricane because it was their job to serve customers like me; to Brian, whose music sealed the moment; and to those others bustling around the pub, whose names I did not learn – thank you for reminding me of the way individual people and their choices are woven within all of the systems of technology that shape our society and culture, whether we see them or know them or not.

This book, like Gift Ecology, is flung out into the world for you to read and to think about, not knowing where it will land or with whom it will find a home. I hope it will help change how people make choices about technology, so that all of Earth’s children may experience a sustainable future – one that is ruled by passion for others instead of by profit for oneself; one that is governed by love and respect instead of by punishment and reward.

What you choose makes a difference, regardless of how old you are or whatever place you have right now in the world.

And you do choose, all day long, every day… just as I do.

The question is not whether we choose, but what – and why.