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Endangered species: Readers

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Esther Cepeda
May 9, 2011
— As I spend more time and effort trying to steel myself from the painful byproducts of the coming intellectual apocalypse, I keep seeing conclusive evidence that we are deep into the dawn of that event.

I happened to run across a letter to the editor of The New York Times from Michael Agnew, an assistant professor of Spanish at the University of San Diego, who was writing in response to an article titled “Can You Read This? It’s Cursive.” This gem of reportage shared the little-discussed reality that elementary schools, pressed to prepare students for the rigors of standardized tests, are no longer spending much time teaching youngsters how to write in cursive.


In his reaction to the article—an evenhanded defense of the educational benefits of learning to write in a style other than block lettering—Agnew argued that “Even if (students) cannot write elegantly, at the very least they should be able to appreciate firsthand old documents in (university) archives—or just read their grandmothers’ diaries.”


My sad reaction to this gentlemen’s suggestion was that there’s little chance my family could ever make heads or tails of the lifetime’s worth of personal diaries currently stacked on my bookshelves. I often walk around the house with handwritten notes from important interviews just hoping someone can help me decipher my own wretched and painfully illegible cursive writing. I’m vowing to be neater.


But the more painful thought is that by the time those grandkids are old enough to care, they won’t read anymore. Nothing longer than a 160-character text message, anyway.


Back in 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts declared a national crisis when it found that reading was declining at break-neck speed—at that time fewer than half of American adults surveyed reported reading literature, and other book-reading had declined as well. In 2007, an Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that 27 percent of the people surveyed hadn’t read a single book in the previous year.


But who needs polls when you have middle- and high-school students around to tell you, on a daily basis, they despise reading? My teacher friends report that even their honors and advanced-placement students are going to great lengths to avoid reading the very books required to earn their grade. Even electronic books hold little appeal to students who don’t want to read and often refuse to do so, grades be damned.


Just for kicks, I typed “I hate reading” into Facebook’s search bar. No fewer than 432,000 people “Liked” 92 pages devoted to their passionate and sometimes bitter hatred of reading. I willed myself to stop perusing the comments when I reached one’s haunting prayer: “Books should fall over a cliff and die.”


If books aren’t already on their way over a cliff, there’s still reason to fear that, much like writing in cursive and reading for knowledge or pleasure, their days are numbered.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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