I was at a resort beach with my teen-age son, and there, standing in the surf and reading a book, was a girl his age. My son went over and chatted for a few minutes. I wondered if he was going to ask her out.
"Dad," he said with that tone he used whenever I offended his adolescent sensibilities, "it's not cool to go out with girls who read books."
Months later, after I mentioned that I had been using this story in my college logic classes, he insisted that he had been misquoted. "It's OK if people read books in private. You just don't do it in public."
Reading, I learned, had joined masturbation as a solitary vice, and today's youth were intent on maintaining their virtue.
At first I blamed the impact of television, as though MTV and HBO were the public library's most potent rivals. Then I encountered some students who were agonizing over my instruction on the logical distinction involved in using "only if" in place of "if"; they explained that earlier in their academic careers they had been encouraged to skip over the little words--like "if"--in order to read faster. I wondered whether the schools were teaching reading as something to get through as quickly and painlessly as possible. In the modern classroom, as in the modern world, feeling good matters more than doing well.
A more disturbing thought has since occurred to me. Books imply some sort of continuity with the past. Cicero wrote of achieving immortality through what he set down on the page, and for 20 centuries he accomplished just that. By the end of this century, if my son and my students are any indication of a trend, Cicero's lease on the future will have expired. Our own "brave new world" may well reach Andy Warhol's acid prediction about everyone being a celebrity for 15 minutes, yet there will be no books to record what is happening, much less to explain who Warhol was.
It is not just that other media are replacing the written word. What may be happening is that adult concerns over the deterioration of their world--drugs and the violence associated with them, AIDS, pollution, an economy of diminished expectations, terrorism, holes in the ozone layer, global warming and on and on--have led the young to take on the same outlook that characterized whole populations in the plague years of the Middle Ages. They will either pray or party, and prayer is much less fun. They may as well try to have a good time now, since all the evidence seems to indicate that the future will not offer that much of a chance to have a good time ever. So what if a good time consists of activities like drive-by shootings in Los Angeles and "wilding" in New York City--the world of "Clockwork Orange" come true? Nothing is really wrong if it's fun and it's not you who gets hurt.
In a world without a tomorrow, why should anyone bother with the past? Life becomes a series of disconnected "nows"--the aimless highs of frustrated rich kids in "Less Than Zero," the random violence of frustrated poor kids in "Colors" (two favorites among young Californians in the last few years). Reading isn't exciting; but more than that, it hints at a linkage between the past and the future that no longer makes any sense at all. To read in public suggests that someone wants to be somewhere else--definitely not "cool" when the reality is that there is nowhere else to be, nowhere to hide.
Perhaps I am wrong. It's possible that our other problems will be no closer to a solution but teen-agers will rediscover books. At the same time they may rediscover courage and compassion and self-sacrifice. Yet what I fear is that without already holding such values, which suppose a certain belief in the future, they will continue to see it pointless and even improper to occupy themselves with the written word.