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Aliteracy: Read All About It . . . or Maybe Not

WASHINGTON POST

Jeremy Spreitzer probably wouldn’t read this story if it weren’t about him.

He is an aliterate--someone who can read, but chooses not to.

A graduate student in public affairs at Park University in Kansas City, Mo., Spreitzer, 25, gleans most of his news from TV. He skims required texts, draws themes from dust jackets and, when he absolutely has to read something, reaches for the audio book.

“I am fairly lazy when it comes to certain tasks,” says Spreitzer, a long-distance runner who hopes to compete in the 2004 Olympics. “Reading is one of them.”

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He’s not alone. The NPD Group, which tracked the everyday habits of thousands of people through the 1990s, reports that this country is reading printed versions of books, magazines and newspapers less and less. In 1991, more than half of all Americans read half an hour or more every day. By 1999, that had dropped to 45%.

A 1999 Gallup Poll found that only 7% of Americans were voracious readers, reading more than a book a week; some 59% said they had read fewer than 10 books in the previous year. Though book clubs seem popular now, only 6% of those who read belong to one. The number of people who don’t read at all, the poll concluded, has been rising for the past 20 years.

Aliteracy abounds. Just ask:

* Internet developers. At the Terra Lycos portal design lab in Waltham, Mass., researcher William Albert has noticed the human guinea pigs in his focus groups are too impatient to read much. People seeking information on the Internet are “basically scanning. There’s very little actual comprehension that’s going on,” Albert says.

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* Transportation gurus. Chandra Clayton, who oversees the design of road signs and signals for the Virginia Department of Transportation, says, “Symbols can quickly give you a message that might take too long to read in text.” When it comes to highway safety and getting lifesaving information quickly, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

* Packaging designers. “People don’t take the time to read anything,” explains Jim Peters, editor of BrandPackaging magazine. “Marketers and packagers are giving them colors and shapes as ways of communicating.” For effective marketing, Peters says, “researchers tell us that the hierarchy is colors, shapes, icons and, dead last, words.”

To Jim Trelease, author of “The Read-Aloud Handbook,” this trend is more than worrisome, it’s wicked. People who have stopped reading, he says, “base their future decisions on what they used to know.”

“If you don’t read much, you really don’t know much,” Trelease says. “You’re dangerous.”

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“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”

--Mark Twain

One thing you can say for illiteracy: It can be identified and combated. Aliteracy is like an invisible liquid, seeping through the culture, nigh impossible to defend against.

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It’s the kid who spends hours with video games instead of books, who knows SimCity better than “A Tale of Two Cities.”

It’s the businesspeople who subscribe to executive book summaries such as Soundview’s eight-page pamphlets, which take simply written management books and make them even simpler.

There may be untold collateral damage in a society that can read but doesn’t. “Students today are less capable of getting full value from textbooks than they were 10 years ago,” says Philip Thompsen, professor of communications at Pennsylvania’s West Chester University. These aliterate students are “missing out on our cultural heritage.”

Nonreaders abound. Ask “Politically Incorrect” talk show host Bill Maher, who once boasted in print that he hadn’t read a book in years. Or Oasis rocker Noel Gallagher, quoted as saying he’d never read a book.

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Daniel Boorstin saw this coming: In 1984, while Boorstin was serving as librarian of Congress, the library issued a landmark report: “Books in Our Future.” Citing recent statistics that only about half of all Americans read regularly every year, he referred to the “twin menaces” of illiteracy and aliteracy.

“In the United States today,” Boorstin wrote, “aliteracy is widespread.”

Reading aloud to children, say Trelease and other reading specialists, is the single best way to ensure that someone will become a lifelong reader.

“Even Daniel Boorstin wasn’t born wanting to read,” Trelease says. “Michael Jordan wasn’t born wanting to play basketball. The desire has to be planted.”

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Olympic hopeful Spreitzer plans to become a teacher and maybe go into politics someday. For now, he’s just trying to get through graduate school.

He watches a lot of television: the History Channel, A&E;, Turner Classic Movies, all the news stations. “I’m a major surfer. I’m required to do a lot of reading,” he says. “But I do a minimum of what I need to do.”

He gives an example. One required text is “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” in which author Robert Putnam argues, among other things, that television has fragmented our society.

Spreitzer thumbed through the book, dipped into a few chapters, spent a while “skipping around.” He feels, however, that he understands Putnam and Putnam’s theories as well as if he had read the book.

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How is that? he’s asked.

Putnam, he explains, has been on TV a lot.

“He’s on the news all the time,” Spreitzer says, “on MSNBC and other places. Those interviews with him are more invaluable than anything else.”


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