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Opening Arguments

The great divide

Remember the digital divide? How the world was going to be split between those with access to all the new media and the poor, left-behind dunces who would not have access? It turns out that we have a divide involving a much older medium. One in four adult Americans say they did not read a book last year:

One in four adults say they read no books at all in the past year, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Tuesday. Of those who did read, women and seniors were most avid, and religious works and popular fiction were the top choices.

The survey reveals a nation whose book readers, on the whole, can hardly be called ravenous. The typical person claimed to have read four books in the last year — half read more and half read fewer. Excluding those who hadn't read any, the usual number read was seven.

That does not mean, of course, that all those non-book-readers are uninformed. Many of them are undoubtedly getting information from radio, cable news, the Internet. But reading involves a special kind of learning. When you read, you have to think. You not only have to pay attention to the sentence you're reading; you have to relate it to the sentence you've just read and put it together with the one you're about to read. Reading makes you pay attention to past and future, to consider not only actions but their consequences, to be aware of the sequences of life. And lasting through a whole book, whether fiction or nonfiction, focuses the mind in a way nothing else can.