A recent National Endowment for the Humanities report
confirms what I have suspected for a long time - pleasure reading is down, book ownership is down, and childhood access to books is down. Even parents with "proper" education do not own books or provide them for their children. This New York Times article
links these precipitous declines with poorer performance on reading tests by students in middle and high schools.
I've always been a defender of multiple literacies. In order to find success, happiness, and perspective in the contemporary world, I've long felt that proficiency in and with a number of discourses/languages was key to a fulfilling life. It is not just a mix of "high" (Cervantes, Mozart, Matthew Arnold, and Benvenuto Cellini) and "low" (Billie Piper, James Patterson, Korn, and Thomas Kinkade), but an ability to deftly maneuver between the two. Naturally, this means less time for many of the old ways of "getting" literacy...less time for attending concerts, going to museums (and even amusement parks), reading the newspaper cover-to-cover, and, yes, even for reading.
One of the most useful works on the subject is Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy
(initial publication 1957). Hoggart wanted to examine what people of all different sorts - especially people of the working classes - "knew." That is, Hoggart was interested in how people occupied themselves, what cultural emblems they used to define one another, and what made for "authentic" culture versus inauthentic, crassly commercial culture. Hoggart finds some value in the multiple literacies that we all have.
One literacy that specifically interests me but that has perhaps yielded the scary reports by the NEH is the "video game literacy." Knowing how to navigate interactive (largely narrative) entertainments is part and parcel to being an informed 10-30 something. However, the study explains that the main decline in reading literacy is for middle and high school students. Granted, there are a number of pressures on one's time at that age, not the least of which are relationships, sports, after-school clubs, drugs and alcohol, etc. Certainly, video games are part of that complex matrix which steals time away from enriching pleasure-reading.
Thus, my call to arms - increase the literary value of literary video games! What does this mean? It certainly does not mean to suggest that all video games should be rendered literary. There is little room for an Oscar Wilde puzzler. My problem - one that has stewed for a long time - is with dialog/reading heavy games (mainly of the RPG variety, but also of other genres) which subject the player to awful, cliched, sub-literate stories, terrible translation, and utter one dimensionality. I don't want to name names here. But the call is either for our youth to budget in that important time for reading (and for parents to do their best to make books available for their kids) or for our other media, the other sites of literacy, to become more traditionally literate.