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Where have all the readers gone?

Peter Denton is an adjunct professor at the Royal Military College of Canada. His next book, Live Close to Home, will be ignored in bookstores later this year.

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Count the books in your house – the books in plain sight, not the ones buried in boxes. Then count the number of books you bought. Finally, count the number of books you actually read last year – books, not magazines, websites or anything else.

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If you are like most people, these numbers will graph a steady slide toward personal illiteracy.

I'm old enough to keep buying interesting books, despite a pile that continues to grow. Someday, I will find the time to read them.

As an author, I write books I want other people to read, so I also feel compelled to support colleagues and the publishing industry.

As a university and college teacher, however, I am deeply troubled by the inability of my students to read quickly. Given all the money and effort school systems spend on literacy, books should not be foreign objects. Nor should reading be a difficult activity.

My students are assigned about one-quarter of the reading I had as an undergraduate. Their protests about how much there is and how long it takes to read it grow every year. Match this to fewer and shorter essays than I used to write – and epically bad essay examinations – and their downward graph toward illiteracy mirrors the downward slide in the number of books sold these days.

It's not that e-books are taking over, either. People hardly buy books any more. Even fewer read them. My e-book sales are almost non-existent and I am told this is a common complaint. Canada's one large book retailing chain stocks as much other stuff as it does books and displays it much more prominently.

Simply put, we are no longer a country of readers – at least not of more than 1,000 words in a row. Anything longer is skipped over like those Internet terms of service agreements, jumping to the agree button at the end.

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Of course, academics have coined a term for this – apparently we now live in a postliterate society. We communicate in other ways than words. Images (worth a thousand words, remember?) flash across our screens and lure our eyes away from the solidity of a book. We now have the intellectual attention span of squirrels – and it shows.

The irony is palpable. All around the world, education (especially for girls and women) is seen as the key to sustainable development and a better future. Parents sacrifice themselves and their future to pay the school fees for children who often are forced to live at a distance to attend.

Literacy – reading books and writing – is at the centre of this passion for education. Yet, here at home, our literacy indicators continue to slide. Manitoba sits close to the bottom of the national average and fingers are thus happily pointed at our teachers and our education system.

I suggest the fingers are pointed in the wrong direction. Children learn what they live with more than what they are taught. The same parents who spent hours reading aloud to toddlers are never seen book in hand by their teenagers. If there are bookshelves, they hold other things or dusty artifacts, not a library of books waiting to be read.

When there is dinner-table conversation, it is fuelled by Facebook or current events, not by the book someone is reading. We know how to read (and to write), but, like physical muscles grown flabby with lack of use, our literary muscles are out of shape.

At school and at work, this has a direct effect on performance. Given the limited time for an assignment, any student who can finish the reading quickly has more time left to actually do the work that is graded. A plodding reader is also often a slow writer, so the penalty is multiplied.

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Vocabulary is similarly affected. Even the words that are learned by hearing them are misspelled in hilarious ways. (In one recent Facebook example, "gender parity" was spelled "gender parody"!) Spell-check doesn't help if brain-check is disabled by lack of practice.

At work, employees can't process what is written as quickly as they should – and write garble that is misunderstood by the people who have to read it. All this wastes time and creates inefficiencies, frustrations and mistakes.

So read, read as though your life depended on it. Read in front of the children. Read on the bus. Read on your work break. Read in the evening instead of surfing the waves of Internet foam.

It will hurt at first, just like any good workout should. But it will make all the difference in the end.

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