Verner column: Novelist lays down law on reading
The man’s out of his mind. Such was my reaction when I heard novelist David Baldacci tell a BBC radio audience his idea for making the world a better place. Baldacci, the author of mega-selling thrillers such as “Absolute Power” and “Deliver Us From Evil,” was speaking on “The Forum,” a BBC program carried by National Public Radio here in the states. It’s typically broadcast during the insomniac hours when your listening choices are either talk shows featuring people who’ve been abducted by aliens or shows featuring political ranters and ideologues. (Lately, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the two.)
The BBC describes The Forum as an “ideas discussion” program that “tackles the big questions of our age.” Baldacci was among three guests discussing whether short-term thinking threatened to sabotage solutions to longer term goals, such as reducing poverty and illness in poorer parts of the world or making corporations more socially responsible. (The panelists’ conclusion: You betcha).
The segment that captured my ear is called “A 60-second idea to improve the world.” It’s a regular feature in which a Forum participant has one minute to describe an idea that could make the world a better place. Baldacci’s was pretty radical. Here’s what he said:
The verb “to read” is the same as the verb “to think.” If you can’t do one, you can’t do the other.
Nature abhors a vacuum. If you can’t come up with your own ideas and opinions about things, people will fill that vacuum. You know, talk show hosts, people on television.
So here’s the law: For every hour your kids watch television or are on the Internet, you have to read with them. So if they do it three hours a day, you have to read three hours a day. If they watch television three hours a day, you have to read to them three hours a day.
When they’re issued a birth certificate, you have to issue them a library card … the two most important documents a child will ever have.
More readers means less ignorance. If people could read better, 95 percent of the world’s problems would go away, and we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about how bad the world is.
Require kids to spend as much time reading as watching TV or tapping away at digital media? Fat chance.
Here, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report, is how those pastimes break down for America’s youth (based on a 2009 survey): Kids ages 8-18 spend an average of seven hours and 38 minutes per day online or watching TV (doesn’t include time spent texting). That’s 53 hours per week. How much do they read? An average of 25 minutes a day, according to the survey, including all forms of print, from books to magazines to newspapers. That’s about three hours a week. To even up that 56 hour total, kids would need to spend about 28 hours a week reading.
Keep in mind those 2-year-old statistics don’t reflect the explosion in social media spurred by recent innovations in smart-phone devices, tablets and other mobile media. When you’re carrying a computer in your pocket, online time will only rise.
You might argue that when people are online, many are reading. But it’s typically a different level of engagement. Skimming headlines, reading email or perusing Facebook isn’t exactly dipping into Dostoevski. Instead, we’re usually seining for specific data (such as the statistics above), exchanging information or seeking diversion. Baldacci is prescribing something beyond mere exercise for the eye muscles: reading as a way to sharpen thinking, shape values and develop our own view of the world. Also, if you look back at his “law,” reading isn’t a solitary activity. Parents should read to, or with, their children (the key message of the “Rowan Reads” summer program currently on hiatus).
Pulling Mom and Dad away from the TV or netbook may prove as tricky as unplugging junior. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes an annual “time use survey” (sorry — more seining here) that provides a breakdown of how Americans spend their time. Adults aged 25-34 spend an average of 13 minutes a day on “leisure” reading, according to the BLS. For the 45-54 age group, the amount roughly doubles, to 24 minutes. Reading tops out in our senior years; those 75 and older read about 85 minutes per day.
Based on that, the best bet for putting Baldacci’s idea into action may lie with bookwormish senior citizens who take time to read with grandchildren.
Baldacci isn’t out of his mind, of course. He’s a very smart guy, a former lawyer whose novels reflect a sophisticated understanding of human motivation and the forces that shape our world, albeit rendered in fictionalized form. His BBC minute makes a point about the importance we should place on the written word as a crucial part of civilization and its progress.
Asked by the host why he insists on equivalency between reading and watching TV or spending time online, Baldacci explained it as a matter of setting priorities.
“Reading,” he said, “is the most important skill you will ever have.”
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Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.