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The Age of American Unreason
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Via MindBlog, here's a review of Susan Jacoby's new book The Age of American Unreason.

She notes a survey indicating that only 57 percent of Americans had read a nonfiction book in a year. That seems pretty good to me.

Also, this paragraph jumped out at me:


As Ms. Jacoby sees it, there are several key reasons for "the resurgent American anti-intellectualism of the past 20 years." To begin with, television, video games and the Internet have created a "culture of distraction" that has shortened attention spans and left people with "less time and desire" for "two human activities critical to a fruitful and demanding intellectual life: reading and conversation."


So we were at some sort of height of intellectualism in 1988? I Googled around for some data on literacy and reading habits over the past 50 years (longer would actually be nice), but couldn't come up with much. But somebody is keeping Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon in business, right? My impression is that people are reading more than ever, and that both literacy and reading among the general public have gone up steadily throughout the history of America.

I always roll my eyes when people start pining for "the good old days" with little or no data indicating that the phenomenon they're complaining about is actually worse (usually it's the other way around).

I'd be interested in seeing cross-generation studies of attention spans. Personally I doubt there is a difference. TV, the internet, and video games are all technologies that can have a large positive impact on learning and literacy, if used in the right way. I'd also be interested to see studies on internet usage habits. My guess is that the bulk of internet usage (in time) is spent reading (I would guess that porn gets many more page views, but that less total time is spent on porn sites).

This isn't to say there isn't always room for improvement in literacy, reading habits, and the general value of intellectual pursuits in our culture. But in lieu of actual data to the contrary, my impression is that over time these things are getting better, not worse.


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