Common Wisdom: No Time to Read

The newspaper business, which keeps bread on our family’s table, faces the problem of declining readership. Even though almost everyone in the business is confident that newspapers will survive, many assume, too, that newspapers, as they enter the next century, will undergo major changes.

There is no denying that reading habits in our country are changing dramatically. From a nation of devoted newspaper readers we have become something else. TV watchers, yes, but even our TV culture does not fully explain the situation. Trying to pinpoint who reads, who reads what, and why those who do not read do not is a more complicated task than simply ascribing to TV the loss of reading.

Experts who analyze the habits of newspaper readers offer various reasons for the peculiar dilemma of low readership. Christine Urban, a Harvard-trained demographer, economist, and social scientist now turned business consultant, attributes the difficulty, finally, to one thing: no time. We have no time, she says, no time to read, no time to look at much of anything, and no time even to indulge in our favorite American sport — shopping.

As little time as people generally have, however, they do squeeze out time to read two things, Miss Urban says. They read their favorite catalogues and do much of their shopping by mail. And they read specialized publications that cater to their individual interests in alpine skiing, for example, fashion, gardening, cooking, investing, or fishing.

It is as if the less time people have the more they covet the time they do have and insist, sometimes a bit sybaritically, upon reading in those few moments something that gratifies a private taste.

Our own family, like so many others, pores over catalogues, but we also break the standard mold a bit. We subscribe to four daily newspapers and two weeklies, plus a collection of journals and magazines. That is admittedly a lot, more than we can digest, and if we were not in the newspaper business, I doubt we would hold so many subscriptions. But, in any event, we would cut the number of newspapers only by one subscription. My husband, I have always suspected, considers a newspaper, magazine, or book his Linus security blanket. He is never seen without one. I myself am allergic to the appearance, noise, and invasive properties of the TV box, which requires me to get my news solely from newspapers.

Our daily sampling of newspapers reveals to me that what has probably been true since newspapers were founded in this country is still true — that their broadly democratic purpose, to inform the citizen, is still valid. They were never meant to exemplify the highest literary form, although they are capable of occasionally producing it. Their purpose to inform the citizenry is a frankly utilitarian one, neither the highest nor the lowest in the scale of human values, but respectable and utterly necessary as a tool for the citizen to live the highest and most responsible life.

It is true that newspaper quality widely varies. News-papers unquestionably can be trendy, frilly, and at times their articles and editorial policies even can be destructive. We see evidence of that. Yet we see plenty of evidence for what newspapers can attain at their best, when they can be powerful collaborators in building a genuine Aristotelian community. A responsible newspaper can go a great way toward fostering the common bond of good will and community purpose that makes a city or a town a proper place in which to live and rear a family. It can provide a forum for the continuing conversation and debate over what the content of the common purpose should be. It can do so, first, by providing background for the news, giving a more considered and mature account than can the transitory medium of TV, and, second, by setting forth an intelligent and rightly-ordered editorial policy.

The drop in newspaper reading means, however, that reliance on TV news gains by default. Television news, which in many cases has become more entertainment than news and is staffed by news readers, anchorpersons, or just plain anchors, first of all promotes a deterioration of language to a common denominator that supposedly everyone can understand. The sound of this language reaches the ear as either a be-bop chit-chat or a sing-song cadence that repeats itself no matter what story is reported. Second, TV news, by its very constraints of time and dependence on visual images, relies not on a balanced assessment of what is happening, but on sound bites, impressions that offer a flavor but no reflection. TV news manages only superficial contact with an audience that passively receives a flitting image of it. It engages the audience in a passive pursuit far different from the active brainwork of reading and assimilating a newspaper. TV, on the one hand, is by nature seldom reflective. Newspapers, on the other hand, not only can be reflective, but they must become increasingly so.

Further, the decline in newspaper reading indicates far more than a problem for the publishing industry. It is symptomatic of the deep crisis of our language itself. Since language is the very gift that distinguishes us as humans, the crisis of language, the assault on language, has enormous intellectual, spiritual, and moral ramifications. The condition of our language invariably reflects the condition of our souls.

Russell Kirk is fond of recalling that his grandfather often referred to the “common reader,” the intelligent lay-man who might be in any walk of life but who enjoyed familiarity with a core of books — the Bible, along with works of classical and English and European literature — that most reasonably educated people had read or at least knew about. The common reader did not read these books as a professional; he was an amateur for whom the richness and truth of these old pillars could provide a backdrop for all the tapestry of his life. It was unlikely that this banker, teacher, lawyer, farmer, or doctor had a string of degrees behind his name. He had simply read some of the books that sensible, decently educated people were supposed to have read.

My father speaks of his grandparents on the Illinois prairie. They were farmers. They read the Bible daily; they read some history and poetry. And they read newspapers. For some reason my father never learned, my great-grandmother, for example, had acquired a subscription to the Toledo Blade.

We know enough of the non-reading habits of today’s fractured single parents, frantic double-income parents, and young professional singles to say that these time-pressed people are not reading newspapers, nor are they surely reading books. Compared to the most ordinary farm family in the first quarter of this century, they are only semi-literate.

The common reader has vanished, taking with him his appreciation of serious fiction and essays, his ear for poetry, his intimacy with Scripture. The short story, for instance, which, as Mel Bradford has said, was the glory of American fiction earlier in this century, is just one light extinguished, gone with the demise of the Saturday Evening Post. When I was a little girl, my grandfather hid the Post under his reading chair, the secret station where we both knew where to find it. My grandfather also read two daily newspapers cover to cover.

The non-readers who have inherited our world hardly know what to do with the patrimony of our literature. In a short span of time they have let the common core of books slip through their hands, merely turning on the TV box for their children and so producing another generation of illiterates. Their busyness, moreover, compounds the difficulty. Not only do they have no time to read to their children, but they also have no time to talk to them. It is little wonder that young people have trouble articulating their thoughts both orally and in writing. In order to communicate, one has to have been taught how by some literate adult. Intelligible speech and the intelligible written word, not the infantile, fleeting imagery of TV, are the vehicles for teaching language.

If a certain level of language is not transmitted from one generation to another, then, because we are inseparable from our language, culture takes a downspin and civilization declines. Christopher Dawson explained the essential connection of a healthy state of the language to the vigor of a civilization.

“In the beginning was the word,” he said. “Language is the gateway to the human world, which is also a moral world, since, as Aristotle … says, ‘the word shows what is advantageous or harmful and likewise what is just and unjust. For this is peculiar to man, as compared with other animals, that he alone has a sense of good and bad, of just and unjust, and the rest. And the community of these things makes the household and the city.’”

At the very heart of the crisis of the word — which is a metaphysical crisis and hence central to modernity’s crisis of intellect — is the debate in the universities over deconstruction. “In the beginning was the Word” has been the core principle of Judeo-Christian culture; God created the world and pronounced it good. So sacred are words that the Word of God actually became flesh in the person of Christ. The Word made flesh therefore is reality itself. Because of the reality of the Word, people have thought until this century that human words were so highly serious that they ought to be tied to reality. Words could not mean just anything; they had to correspond to the reality they signified.

Now, however, because in the dilemma of modernity, reality has been overturned and denied, words do not have to be true at all. They have no meaning beyond what the reader or hearer thinks they mean. In sum, there is no such thing as truth; there is no such thing as a lie.

A couple of decades ago parents feared, when their children went to college and enrolled in economics courses, that their offspring would emerge as Marxists. Today, though, economics departments have become more sane. English departments, followed closely by history departments, are the new breeding ground for revolutionaries. They are inhabited largely by deconstructionists, those who indeed would take apart and destroy our language. Consider a sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It does not sing of her love for Robert, as we thought. One cannot really say what it means, since no objective standard can be employed to judge it, and certainly we must not rely on what Elizabeth meant to say. Though we can compare views of what the poem means, we can never know for sure. Interestingly enough, deconstructionists seem mightily sympathetic toward those “politically correct” interpretations that would say with certainty that a given work is meant to signify the oppressions of race, gender, and class. A recent Johns Hopkins University Press catalogue, for instance, includes a new offering that proclaims Elizabeth Browning’s poetry a feminist outcry.

The English language, unfortunately, is easier prey than the more inflected European languages to the assaults of inclusive enthusiasts who are battling to remove all gender-specific constructions. Their chief battlegrounds are, of course, the most sacred — the Scriptures and the liturgy. For example, a scholarly paper delivered at a 1986 Atlanta conference was entitled “Deconstruction and the Parables of Jesus.”

Deconstruction — that effort, as one brave young man has scathingly put it, systematically to dismantle all of Western metaphysics — has infected academia to its foundations. But it likewise attacks every way in which we use words, which means the very way we think about things at every moment of our day.

Our semi-literate American people who have quit reading newspapers, journals, and books, urged on by deconstructionist ideologues who preach that words do not mean anything anyway, are throwing away thousands of years of accumulated wisdom. Destroying a civilization by throwing away its books consumes but a brief moment. It takes centuries to rediscover the books and rebuild the lost kingdom.


  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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