[a]literacy…is like an invisible liquid, seeping through our culture, nigh impossible to pinpoint or defend against. It’s the kid who spends hours and hours with video games instead of books, who knows Sim Cities better than "A Tale of Two Cities."

Oh my stars and garters! The average teenager has no interest in reading Victorian novels! There are problems with an aliterate society, but phrases like "missing out on our cultural heritage" set my Spidey sense a-tinging.

What sort of child wants to read Dickens rather than play SimCity? A Washington Post article posits that

[a]literacy…is like an invisible liquid, seeping through our culture, nigh impossible to pinpoint or defend against. It’s the kid who spends hours and hours with video games instead of books, who knows Sim Cities better than "A Tale of Two Cities."

Oh my stars and garters! The average teenager has no interest in reading Victorian novels! There are problems with an aliterate society, but phrases like "missing out on our cultural heritage" set my Spidey sense a-tinging. To excerpt further from the muddle-headed Post article, it goes on to discuss our hallowed "literature-based past,” which:

included a reverence for reading, a celebration of the works and a worshipful awe of those who wrote.

To draw you a picture: Where we once deified the lifestyles of writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, we now fantasize about rock-and-roll gods, movie starlets or NBA super-stud… The notion of writer-as-culture-hero is dead and gone. Comedic monologuists such as Jay Leno or David Letterman have more sex appeal than serious fiction writers. The grail quest for the Great American Novel has ended; it was a myth after all.

Where we once drew our mass-cult references from books ("He’s a veritable Simon Legree"), we now allude to visual works — a Seinfeld episode (not there’s anything wrong with that…) or “The Silence of the Lambs” (the movie, not the book). A recent story in Salon speaks of "learning to read a movie."

Good heavens! It’s hardly surprising that as books become less central in American society we talk about their authors less, but is a decline in "worshipful awe" something to be concerned about? Yikes. We’ll note that the paper of record states that, at a Dave Eggers book reading in Toronto, women "reportedly threw themselves at him as though he were a pop star," so the writer-as-sex-symbol trope may not be entirely dead. But what on earth does worship of writers have to do with the act of reading? (And what’s wrong with "reading a movie"?)

For all the abuse heaped on the Oprah book club, an audience that reads middlebrow novels is an audience that reads novels. People — men, women, children — will read books when they have a compelling reason to. Unsurprisingly, the idea that everyone else is reading a book provides many people with a compelling reason. Kids — even some adults who like children’s books — will read a book if they are made aware of it and it seems cool. Recent, successful titles have made that abundantly clear. Or check out long-time trendsetters Penguin Books, which apparently quadrupled the British sales of some of titles through a hipper, edgier redesign. (Metropolis link via Lines and Splines, which always seems desperately interesting even though I don’t understand three-quarters of it; every profession is a conspiracy against the laity and such.)

Maura noted the recent cutbacks in newspaper book reviews. This is a shame. I love books. I think reading is one of the greatest activities in the world. But attempting to shame people for not reading — or worse, attempting to shame them for not reading the proper, high-minded thing — is not the way to get people reading. (Although that probably wasn’t the intent of the Post article, given that it was printed in a newspaper and all.) Children who grow up reading will become adults who read; children will read books if they are introduced to books they like and that they think make a fun break from playing Tekken or watching Friends. Children shouldn’t be expected to find Dickens immediately pleasurable — I know certain literature-loving adults who aren’t Dickens fans — and the expectation that they will fosters an environment around reading that is the antithesis what should accompany an enjoyable leisure activity. Lovers of books may well have a reason to be concerned, but they shouldn’t destroy the village in order to save it.

(Thanks to Friend-of-Snarkout Greg for bringing this to our attention via Metafilter.)