Illiteracy the greatest threat to print media

Rob Young is a founding partner and senior vice-president, planning and research at Toronto-based Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell, one of Canada's largest media management operations....

Rob Young is a founding partner and senior vice-president, planning and research at Toronto-based Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell, one of Canada’s largest media management operations.

Four-hundred and fifty-one degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which freebie subway tabloids begin to burn.

These highly disposable papers are sucked into Toronto’s subway tunnels practically each time a train exits the station. If the tinder-dry pages land on the subway track’s third rail, which surges with electricity, they combust, triggering a fire alarm. Apparently, Toronto’s fire fighters have to douse the freebie flames three to four times a week.

If you were a high school student when I was a high school student, you might have been required to read Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451. A dystopian vision, the novel depicts the future as a grim and depressing time when books are banned and homes are burned to the ground if the owner is found to be hiding literature. Unlike our Toronto subway fire fighters, who seem to spend a great deal of time extinguishing incendiary dailies, the firemen of 451 made their living setting books alight.

Eventually, the novel’s hero, Guy Montag – himself a third-generation ‘fireman’ – finds meaning in life, thanks to the written word. But it’s a struggle for poor Guy. He has to combat society, government, the military, his peers and fellow workers in order to earn the freedom to read.

Although we are now living in the temporal future depicted by Bradbury, the biggest threat to the written word comes less from fire fighters or politicians or military leaders – or the third rail – than it does from illiteracy.

According to Maureen Cavan, who is donating her valuable time to help combat illiteracy through a national foundation called ABC Canada, fully half of Canada’s 18-plus population can’t read – or read poorly, focusing on the pictures.

Which explains why daily newspaper readership in this country is in the low 60% range. Media research suggests that only about 4% of Canada’s adult population exhibit a truly literate lifestyle – meaning they’re heavily into both newspaper and magazines. And Canadians are relatively well educated in the global context. In point of fact, the vast majority of the world’s population is cut off from the written word. Illiteracy is keeping most of the world’s population in the dark.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife, Sara, pored over an article by journalist Ian Brown, who was writing about his summer spent in isolation, reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the greatest epic poem in the English language.

‘Is he boasting about how smart he is?’ I asked.

‘Quite the opposite,’ Sara replied. ‘He’s writing about how stupid he is.’

I’m sure Ian Brown was being self-effacing. He is remarkably literate and yet, according to his own story, it took him two and a half hours to read 65 lines of Milton’s poem – that’s one line every 2.3 minutes.

Hard work for a bright guy.

The head of English Literature at the University of Toronto, Bruce Meyer, teaches a course called Essential Texts. His shortlist includes the Bible, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. How many of us have read even one of these titles, cover-to-cover? This is an almost insurmountable challenge for even the fortunate few who can read well. True literacy is a gift possessed by the very few.

The written word has been around for a long time. The first evidence of written communication came to us 6,000 years ago. The Sumerian civilization created symbols to describe quantities of foodstuffs. But the first truly modern reading experience didn’t happen until 400 AD – 4,400 years later. According to Meyer, Saint Augustine, who wrote The Confessions (on the top 10 list of essential texts), was the first to read without moving his lips. I’m not kidding. This was a significant action because it demonstrated internal reading. Before that time, the written word was an extension of the oral tradition. The written word was a way of speaking to others who could not read.

But even though 1,600 years have transpired, forms of oral communication still remain far more popular than the written word. There were fully functioning Blackfoot and Cree tribes in Alberta just 70 years ago who relied on oral memory as a means of recording tribal history. And today, the power of oral over the written word is evidenced by the fact that Canadians spend around 40 hours a week with TV and radio and only about four hours a week with the printed word.

Reading is hard work and most human beings just don’t take kindly to the task. So the next time you ponder the decline of the printed word, remember that it can be countered by exercising the muscle between your ears – and helping others to do the same.

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