Does fear of the future turn people into non-readers?

An unexpected comment in a mostly, ahem, predictable feature in this week’s Times Higher on the decline in book reading gave me pause.

The author, english lit prof Dale Salwak, says one of the reasons for the supposed decline is that

The decline in reading is…  related to the spirit of the age – riddled as it is with real or imagined anxieties, with local or global threats, with a disquieting present and an uncertain future.

When people are afraid or troubled, they often turn away from the solitude that reading requires and the interiority that it invites. Many tend to look outside themselves for answers, and to distrust what they will discover, what they may be challenged to do, what they may be invited to contemplate, what questions about themselves they may have to answer if they look too closely at their uncharted inner landscape.

Um, OK. I suppose that might be true. Is there evidence at all? From, say, the Great Depression? Or the years before World War Two? Or the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis?  None is mentioned in the piece. I find it quite hard to imagine how the evidence could be found – do we we have comparable data on habits of cultural consumption across times and places?

Without it, the suggestion that this turn away from reading “often” happens in troubled times beset by uncertainty about the future strikes one as, basically, tosh.

The tosh meter rises further with reference to the “spirit of the age”. Zeitgeist arguments are always suspect. As explanations, all they amount to is saying that something happened at a particular time because it was the kind of thing that happened at the time. Bad history, and valueless cultural commentary, in my book. Not that it is easy to resist the urge to try and summarise the mood of the times – doing that would leave at least half of all newspapers blank. But best not to take this stuff too seriously, and this long piece certainly takes itself seriously…

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2 Comments on “Does fear of the future turn people into non-readers?”

  1. Tim Jones Says:

    Suspect it is tosh. But this did put me in mind of an ex-colleague who didn’t like silence; always needed something going on around him, and would switch on the radio or TV when entering a hotel room or such like.

    Thought it most odd at the time, and suspected it might be some aversion to introspection or ‘interiority’. So the idea isn’t complete rubbish. We close our minds to stuff that might hurt us…

  2. jonturney Says:

    Sure, there are individual differences in temperament here (watch teens doing homework with music playing), and each of does different things at different times. I’m just querying whether there’s any evidence that there are broad shifts in these habits, and how one would get it.
    I think it has always been hard to persuade (some) people to read books with the kind of attention academics like to think is required.
    Similarly, there are zeitgeist arguments with a bit more substance them – Paul Foreman on quantum mechanics, say – though still not sure how convincing they can be.

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