Dear George Will: We Haven’t Stopped Reading

And we haven’t lost much

“Something vital to democratic culture is waning,” George F. Will wrote in the Washington Post on April 17, a day in the middle of one of the greatest crises in global history.

Was that thing voting rights? Those are pretty vital to democratic culture. What about the right to freely protest and gather in public? Those appear to be under assault as well. How about being able to move about in public without fear of your neighbors or police drones spying on you?

But it was none of those things.

Instead, for George Will, a man whose snobbery is as bottomless as the federal debt, the COVID-19 crisis is an occasional to bemoan the end of “deep literacy.” 

“Long before today’s coronavirus lockdown provided occasions for the vice that the phrase denotes, ‘binge watching’ had entered Americans’ lexicon,” Will wrote. “Few, however, speak of binge reading.”

Indeed, few do.

Will’s column, which read like he could have hatched it pre-coronavirus and gotten sidetracked, is mostly a summary of research about how screens distract people. This research indicates pretty conclusively that we’ve lost the art of “deep reading.” How sad. It’s true that I can’t read for half an hour without checking my phone anymore. But I’m still reading.

I wonder what George Will thinks the problem is here. If people had read more deeply, would an evil bat virus  somehow not have escaped China, bringing unspeakable destruction to the world? Would our country have gone about dealing with the virus in a more systematic and less chaotic way? Would we not have elected Donald Trump in 2016 or Bill DeBlasio in 2014?

He argues that because of the loss of deep reading, the human brain has rewired itself, which makes it people more subject to authoritarian rule. And here’s where his argument degrades into nonsense.

The entire globe may, in fact, be staring at its phones simultaneously. But we also live in an extraordinary era of literacy. The global literacy rates for people 15 years and above is more than 86 percent. In developed nations, that rate is near 100 percent. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, it’s 64 percent. By contrast, the literacy rate for the entire world was 31 percent 100 years ago.

People didn’t have smartphones, or the Internet, or even television in the 1940s, a time that featured the three most totalitarian regimes in human history. But really, this doesn’t even merit an argument. More people can read, and are reading, right now, than all the literate people at any other time in human history combined. And it’s no accident that, with a few exceptions, the most literate societies are the ones that enjoy the most freedom. Those are also the societies that binge the most TV.

Besides, there are somewhere between 600,000 and one million books published each year in the United States alone. While I realize most of those books sell somewhere between zero and five copies, that’s not exactly a sign of a society that’s losing its ability to read.

Breaking news: People are dumb. H.L. Mencken’s “booboisie” still hold sway over America. This is about the same as it’s always been. But whether they’re dumb or not, most people can still read, and they may not interpret things the way George Will wants them to.

Things are changing, but nothing has been lost. Except for baseball.

Which might just be why George Will is so upset.





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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

2 thoughts on “Dear George Will: We Haven’t Stopped Reading

  • April 22, 2020 at 6:26 pm

    Mr. Pollack,
    I appreciate that perhaps Will overstated his case in support of Adam Garfinkle. But your tally of literate people across the globe, and number of books in circulation does not tell us much about Garfinkle’s point, assuming that Will made a reasonably accurate interpretation. (I plan to read Garfinkle’s full article.) I think Will was trying to show that it is not merely the quantity of readers and the distribution of basic literacy, but rather the overlooked absence of so-called deep reading and deep literacy. I don’t think many would argue that the quality of reading experiences and one’s immersion in challenging and erudite text is a worthless concern. If most of us spend inordinate amounts of time on sound-bite reading, there is not much time or inclination to wrestle with more complex material. There are only so many hours in the day and we all have lots of other things to do. In an age where the capacity and patience to think deeply about anything is frequently set aside for ever faster consumption patterns, e.g., the phenomenon of infotainment comes to mind, we do ourselves no favor by dismissing the issues raised by Garfinkle and Will.

    • April 25, 2020 at 9:22 am

      @Richard Greyson
      Very well said.

      I’d also add that a better response to Will’s piece would be to debate Garfinkle’s argument, and perhaps use a “deep-reading” mindset (which is to read and consider the writer’s argument in its totality rather focus on selective elements).


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