The Decline and Fall of Reading? by Laurie Atkinson

“What’s the best book you’ve ever read?”; the easiest way to make an English Literature class sweat. Minds cast back in desperate panic; “there was that play we did for GCSE, I can’t have that…what about… no, that was when I about seven…I’m sure they did a book of The Lord of the Rings…”. And so, after several moments guilty silence, a few quivering hand’s are raised, and Year 12 is presently consoled with the knowledge of the unanimity of its limited reading history.


Rubbish, you might say! You don’t take English Literature if you’ve never picked up a book in your life. Of course, I exaggerate. Obviously amongst one’s peers there’s the essential literary catalogue; Harry Potter…errm, Harry Potter…do graphic novels count? Ridiculous? Perhaps, but in many cases true. Other than the hallowed Rowling library, perhaps with the odd Twilight supplement thrown in for good measure, numerous reading experiences are restricted to those few faded titles of distant childhood. Sadly, without the teacher’s breath on their neck, reading has lost its allure for many of today’s adolescents, to be quickly replaced by the bright lights and exciting buzzes drifting through from the next room. Why sit in the dark over ill-illuminated type, labouring at each turn of the page, when the reassuring hum of the screen waits only a button-press away? Such is the maxim of a generation bred in the mist of the so-called “digital age” where manuscript is redundant and the synopsis king.


But why all the doom and gloom? We forget reading is not necessarily an instinct hard-wired into the human psyche. Only in the last 200 or so years has universal literacy become the norm, the advent of affordable and widely accessible literature is even more recent. One must wonder then, is the practice of mass reading less an essential social progression than a temporary fad now reaching its expiry? Perhaps natural selection dictates that the well-thumbed book should be inevitably upgraded to the sticky-fingered iPod, and it stands to reason the younger generation should be the first to embrace the change? It’s not like the words will be lost, those traditionalists stripped of the means to practice their dying art, what about the Kindle, the Nook, the iPad, all asserting reading as a force to be reckoned with in modern society.

Well, I’m not convinced. Yes these are viable alternatives, but only a poor mimic of the intimacy of a book, and how many of us are truly immune to their inherent distractions? After a long day, as one’s eyes begin to tire and our attention wanes, doing battle with a screen drowned in copy is an unattractive prospect. “I’ll just check the news while I get settled, I wonder if Dave’s answered my friend request yet…“ and before you know it, the shoulders are hunched and the fingers tapping, an evening is consumed by vowel-less exchanges of bewildering acronyms and emotionless smileys.


But I’m not here to condemn technology; if this is the niche creative reading can occupy amidst the effortless immediacy of 21st Century entertainments, so be it. What’s important is that it survives, and continues to be enjoyed by young and old alike, lest our species descends into something Orwellian. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Have a read of 1984.