To put an end to the spirit of inquiry that has characterized the West it is not necessary to burn the books,” Robert Maynard Hutchins wrote in the introductory volume of The Great Books of the Western World. “All we have to do is to leave them unread for a few generations.”
An examined life has never been the aim of more than a fraction of any population, and intellectuals have always been rightly hated. But America certainly boasted a more literate citizenry fairly recently. More than sixty years ago, the Encyclopedia Britannica published the fifty-four-volume Great Books of the Western World. Whereas giving away the series today might be next to impossible, door-to-door salesmen—another relic (killed by enterprising door-to-door rapists) of a mostly forgotten age—sold more than a million sets at a starting price of $298, when $298 went a long way.
My public library leaves hundreds of titles—including the “great books”—for the taking on a bookshelf atop wheels in the lobby. I picked up Walker Percy’s Lancelot, which I promptly read, and Rob Sheffield’s enjoyable Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, which I had read and reviewed for the Spectator four years ago. (“The 1980s are a lot like Jesus. Underappreciated in its time, the decade went on to quite a life after death.”) As a joke, I have snagged autobiographies by Judge Wapner and Larry King that I prominently display above my fireplace to advertise my erudition to houseguests, which are few.
Gratis beats highway robbery. But the free food for thought evokes more acrimony than appreciation. Free books convey to the ignorant that the culture values literacy because it gives books away to all. But they shout to readers that books hold the same value as the clutter littering sidewalks on trash day. Across the street from my library that gives away hardbacks, a used bookstore that sold them once stood. B. Dalton? Crown Books? Borders? Gone. Gone. Gone. The Encyclopedia Britannica salesman won’t be walking through that front door.
According the Bureau of Labor, Americans spend about fifteen minutes a day reading. They spend about two-and-a-half hours a weekday watching television and nearly an hour playing games or messing about on the computer. The feds haven’t yet created a separate category for taking selfies or obtaining new tattoos, but anecdotal evidence suggests that their popularity exceeds reading, too.
“Time spent reading for personal interest and playing games or using a computer for leisure varied greatly by age,” the bureau reports. “Individuals age 75 and over averaged 1.0 hour of reading per weekend day and 20 minutes playing games or using a computer for leisure. Conversely, individuals ages 15 to 19 read for an average of 4 minutes per weekend day and spent 52 minutes playing games or using a computer for leisure.”
Who is the teen Eugene spiking the average to four minutes?
One needn’t consult government gurus to grasp the decline in literacy. Hints of where we head come while traveling. People don’t read much on planes, trains, and buses any longer. They text, game, and generously share with fellow passengers the rap music they listen to. Televisions even play as unwelcome companions in the backseats of taxis. The lazy machines that anesthetize rather than stimulate thought have supplanted books.
Heretofore, illiteracy advertised barbarism. But when the bibliophobes wear Google glasses, they generally don’t see themselves as backward. We inhabit a paradoxical age in which the lazy machines made by intelligent minds encourage sclerosis of brains and bodies.
The assault on imagination by passive entertainment manifests in suffering through conversations with morons, dumbed-down popular entertainment, schools that socialize instead of educate, a decrease in public demand for culturally enriching institutions such as used bookstores, and the transformation of public libraries from quiet retreats in a noisy world to loud daytime homeless shelters where DVDs, CDs, computer consoles, and even video games marginalize books. A more profound consequence of the real-life Idiocracy pertains to self-government of two sorts.
An education fit for a king implies an understood responsibility of enlightenment for the sovereign. When 320 million people effectively serve as king, education becomes especially important. “If the people are not capable of acquiring [liberal] education,” University of Chicago honcho Robert Maynard Hutchins maintained in the introductory volume of The Great Books of the Western World, “they should be deprived of political power and probably of leisure. Their uneducated political power is dangerous, and their uneducated leisure is degrading and will be dangerous.”