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A survey released last week by the National Endowment for the Arts says that reading for pleasure among Americans is on the decline. In addition, the survey found, those who do read are more likely than nonreaders to visit museums, attend musical performances and sporting events, and perform volunteer and charity work. Andrew Solomon, in a New York Times op-ed, concludes: “Readers, in other words, are active, while non-readers–more than half the population–have settled into apathy.”

Solomon says of reading books: “It requires effort, concentration, attention. In exchange, it offers the stimulus to and the fruit of thought and feeling….The electronic media, on the other hand, tend to be torpid. Despite the existence of good television, fine writing on the Internet, and video games that test logic, the electronic media by and large invite inert reception.”

After eight or more hours working at a computer, many people may feel as though they’ve been reading all day. But what we tend to read online (e-mail, news, book and music reviews, technical and financial data) is a sorry alternative to literature. Great literature is available online, although so far we seem to have been reluctant to replace the book in print with its online format. On the other hand, we have been more than willing to supplant the content of books with the content of the Internet. Sadly, because much of what we read online has been written in the last decade, we are missing out not only on the “stimulus to and the fruit of thought and feeling,” but also on the centuries worth of cultural history contained in literature.

In the past, technology has been a trustworthy guardian of history (think printing press, recorded music, photography). In this case, unfortunately, it is shaping up to be but a dismal replacement.

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