Western populations have suffered a profound degradation of reason, intellect, and moral integrity. The symptoms of this are many and flagrant. Among the most telling: Americans are rapidly losing both passive and active vocabulary. Both declined at a fairly steady pace postwar until the advent of e-mail and the text message; vocabulary loss then accelerated.
Reading skills have been lost. Only a small minority of Americans now have the ability to read and understand a book—book-reading now is the purview of the personality type drawn to endurance sports—which means most of us are functionally illiterate for democratic purposes. Those who can’t read at book length cannot follow a sustained, linear argument. The brain is highly plastic, and we have changed ours in a way that makes it much harder for most of us to think beyond 140 characters—slogans, not arguments—even as we have created in the Internet such a riveting system of rival entertainment that reading a book now requires exceptional personal discipline whereas once it required only the desire to be relieved of boredom.
That last part gets to the heart of it, I think. The effect of the Internet on book-reading has been like the effect of European diseases upon isolated native populations. The few of us who still read at length, for pleasure, are like the fraction of American Indians who managed to survive smallpox, cholera and whiskey. Many of those who formerly thought of themselves as dedicated readers didn’t have mental immune systems capable of resisting exposure to the bacilli of social media and digital cameras. Articles like the one in yesterday’s post are a modern form of ghost dancing — a delusive, futile attempt to cope with the tragic loss of an entire way of life. But no matter how the English majors wail and beat their breasts, the ghosts of Henry James and Marcel Proust are not coming back to roll up the fiber optic cables and wash all the smartphones into the sea. It’s time to stop lamenting and get on with the hard work of preserving what remnants we can through an uncertain future.