This post is the first of a three-part series about dystopian novels and our illiterate present.
There is an interesting subset of fiction, starting in the 30s, predicting dystopian futures where books will no longer be read, and people will be dumb and susceptible to every suggestion by their government and vice of society. That conversation is even more prevalent today, not about the future, but as the society for which those books of bygone decades were written. Have we become a group who has eschewed reading and literacy for more easier methods of ‘entertainment’ and less troublesome ways to view our world?
The heavyweight champion of this conversation is 1984 by George Orwell. A political dystopia where reading and true knowledge is banned by a big brother government that keeps its citizens in a state of subservience and illiteracy through methods of control and disinformation. In schools, it was the most read book of this type, and therefore has become the most popular name drop as people decry the illiteracy of youth and the susceptibility of our citizenry to every whim and suggestion by a government that is becoming more and more comfortable with fancier outlandish lies.
Indeed, we have seen an increase in the use of ‘Orwellian’ to describe our nation this past week. In the midst of widespread lies about election results that large swaths of the American voting public believe (According to a poll taken in November, half of Republicans believe the election was rigged), a fight with a global pandemic that we (arguably) lost due to misinformation and a fear of government, which was ironically encouraged and spread by…the government, and a culminating storming of the Capitol based on a culmination of these lies and anxieties, it is hard not to see an Orwellian thumbprint stamped into the center of the United States of America.
But, unfortunately, Orwell’s prediction of government overtaking its citizenry through disinformation, control, and manipulation, is too kind to our citizen’s and too harsh on our government. After all, no information is being banned (although, also due to the implications of this conversation, this statement is in dispute), no books are off-limits, there is no Ministry of Truth- only the farthest on the fringes believe that certain truths are now banned, and that Twitter is now some ersatz Department of a deep state big brother.
Maybe there are some correlations- some systems created from the top down may control the information people consume and create feedback loops that move me and many others into one set of thoughts that are blind to actual truth and make us believe enlightenment when we are actually locked in Plato’s cave staring at shadows. However, if this is true it would portray the government as the culprit, and in our current predicament, where the propaganda and structures of misinformation are created by a Republican government (election rigging and pandemic abuse) this would disagree with the very people who would most likely claim top-down Orwellian control- Republicans. And this would become some bizarre instance of looking at what a party has done wrong as evidence of what a party is fighting against.
But the go-to example now of ‘Orwellian’ modernity is not governmental control, but control of the government shown by Apple, Google, Twitter, Facebook, and Amazon, as they silence Trump and destroy Parler- a forum for conservative voices of the most extreme variety. But to try and synchronize this with Orwell’s vision of a big brother government is backwards. Be scared of the power of our tech industry, it’s frightening, but this is the inverse of what Orwell predicted. Michelle Goldberg put it well in her NYTimes article, ‘The Scary Power of the Companies that Finally Shut Trump Up,’ “Trump’s social media exile represents, in some ways, a libertarian dream of a wholly privatized public sphere, in which corporations, not government, get to define the bounds of permissible speech.”
And this is not trying to pick a political fight (although if it does-so be it) but to point out that when played out to a sufficient degree, Orwell’s prediction, although present in some forms, is not a sufficient explanation of what we see today.
What we see today is a willful lack of receiving information- a choice. We have a plethora of options and choose ignorance, an overabundance of reading materials, and we choose none. We claim election rigging not based on a skewed opinion based on repressed and curated information by the government, but because of suggestion about what seems possible, a confirmation of what we want to be true that come down from the top, but was made possible through a disengaging from serious intellectual curiosity.
In 2019 Pew Research asked the question Who doesn’t read books in America? And the simplest answer is that 27% of adults haven’t read a book, in whole or in part, in the past year at the time the poll was conducted.
I might end up making this research say too much, so forgive me if my commentary on it becomes too far-reaching, but I am startled by the fact that when I walk outside 1 out of every 4 people I meet do not even attempt to read a book in a year, which could probably mean, they don’t really ever plan on reading. The poll asks the question at its lowest bar, did you even in part read any book in a year, and 1-in-4 were like, ‘Nah, can’t say I have.’
I don’t think anyone can argue that that is problematic, even if not surprising, but they may argue the degree to which it is problematic. For instance, it would be easy to ask what this has to do with dystopian futures of illiteracy and government control? How can 1-in-4 people not reading, impact a society in such an appreciable way?
Well, the implications go further and so does the data. According to the same survey done by Pew in 2016, the average person read 4 books in a year, including those who read none at all. Just four… Not even one a month, not even one every two months. And I would bet some people hear that number and go, “Good for us… four isn’t that bad.” But don’t let us off the hook… it is bad.
Let’s perform a quick thought experiment. Think of two or three ‘readers’ in your life (if you can’t think of any, point made… let’s move on). How many books do they read? I know about ten of my friends read around one book a month to keep reading as a part of their life. Fantastic- that is three times the national average, and I am not sure if any of them would even consider themselves ‘readers.’ My dad has been a learner his whole life and read over 30 books this last year- amazing- he just made up for 8 Americans who read nothing to meet our national average. I read 95 books this year and was just talking to someone who’s sister also read exactly 95- a rare convergence to be sure- and her and I just made up for 47 Americans who read nothing at all in order to meet our national average.
My point is this… those who read, don’t just read four books, they are reading many times the national average. So what we have right now, based on our survey data, is a small group of people who read and make up for a majority of people who do not. Yes, only 27% of people didn’t read anything at all, didn’t even make an attempt at reading in 2019, a number that stays pretty consistent year after year, but how many started just one book and didn’t finish it, or read one book because they were made to by their business, or read one book they were interested in over a span of four months?
I know a lot of these people, and I hesitate to call them readers or to rest my hopes in a literate America on them. So what is the percentage of Americans who do not read? Who read one book, or a book in part, or were forced to skim through a couple books for the business they work for? Is it strange to assume that number is 50%… 75%? Doesn’t feel like it to me.
Maybe this is all too harsh, or maybe it’s perfectly fair, maybe we are so far past this being an insult that nobody cares when they are called non-readers or illiterate, or when called out for their lack of reading… I don’t really know, which is why my next posts will propose that 1984 has been de-throned as the book that predicts our illiterate dystopian present, and that there are two new contenders for the title.
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