Why Americans suck at reading

Reading while walkingAmericans are bad at reading. If this is controversial to you, it’s not because the facts are on your side. We stink at poking holes in arguments and we can’t explain metaphors very well.

A common culprit for our declining reading abilities is the web. It makes us more distracted and less able to focus on a single argument.

But what if this is missing a bigger, more obvious truth? It’s all summarized in this recent article in the NYT.

What’s interesting about this piece is the recommended solution. Before this, I would’ve figured the best way to get Americans to read better is to get them to read more, full stop. And while that’s not incorrect, it’s not exactly correct, either.

The true breakdown in reading comprehension (and thus enjoyment/effectiveness) starts with limited knowledge of facts:

Students who score well on reading tests are those with broad knowledge; they usually know at least a little about the topics of the passages on the test. One experiment tested 11th graders’ general knowledge with questions from science (“pneumonia affects which part of the body?”), history (“which American president resigned because of the Watergate scandal?”), as well as the arts, civics, geography, athletics and literature. Scores on this general knowledge test were highly associated with reading test scores.

Read the article then let me know what you think.

Image courtesy vonderauvisuals; used under Creative Commons.

Book Excerpts Taken from People on the Subway: Vol. 1

This is the first edition in my new series. The premise is simple.

The subway I take to work every day is packed with people.

One of my favorite pastimes is to look at what other people are looking at on their phones/Kindles. Sometimes I read along and type the words on their page into my phone as fast as I can. Since people read faster than I can type with one hand, the transcripts I’m able to record are incomplete. Here’s the first two installments in this series.

Other people

I thought with a little thump in my heart.

Another hinge untied. Concentration. Infinite caution.

And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring chaotic

My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick.

Her world was an aviary no larger than a living room.

Through all this the man was perfectly calm.

All at once I loved the man, and fiercely.

I grabbed the good from the box and turned to the hawk. It was the wrong bird.

This is really awkward, I began.


Gloria Allred has no hobbies and few indulgences. She doesn’t cook. (“If I cook, I could be helping someone else during that time.”)

She maintains her stamina

Without caffeine, her equilibrium without

Alcohol. She lost interest in dating a long time ago.

Corita Kent, Why “Long/ Live/ the…” and More

eleven east cafe glassboro NJ

My first year as an undergrad was spent at a college in Glassboro, a medium-sized suburban New Jersey town. A city boy at heart, my new friends and I spent most of our time in the town’s sole independent coffee shop and book store: eleven east café and evergreen books, respectively.

It was in that bookstore that I found this:


A book of poetry, sort of—written by playwright Joseph Pintauro and illustrated by sister Corita Kent. It was full of that trademark 1970s whimsy and innocence. One of the poetic devices used in the book is the repetition of “Long live the…”

Long Live the Thing by Joseph Pintauro and Sister Corita Kent

Long Live the Thing by Joseph Pintauro and Sister Corita Kent

The book is a celebration of life. It documents simple joys and observations:

Long live chickens
who run free
who lay their eggs
in dark
places around
the world where no man

This book seemed (and still seems) like a magic secret gift that random chance and serendipity gave to me. It spoke to me in a deep way when I first found them over ten years ago; it found me at the right moment in my life. It also speaks to why independent book stores remain so important, even though evergreen books shut down long ago. There are some experiences for which you cannot search.

I think this quotation from a 2012 PBS interview with art historian Kathryn Wat neatly summarizes the allure of Corita’s work, and it applies to her collaboration with Mr. Pintauro, too:

We feel that we’re living in dark times. And we look at this work and we see someone who was creating super-cool art, that’s very hip, but that is filled with a sincere spirit. And I think that’s appealing to all of us.

And now there’s a traveling exhibition featuring the work of Corita Kent {npr}. It opens at the Warhol museum at the end of this month.

Friday Link List: Which Carr Is It? Edition

Two of my all-time favorite media writer types share a last name—”Carr”.

I often conflate the two.

This time, at least, my conflation is purposeful: I’d like to share two recent articles, one by Nicholas Carr and one about David Carr.

With me now?

First, the piece about David Carr. It’s called All the Views He’s Fit to Print {the globe and mail}. Really feel like I got to know the guy through this. Lots of gems like this:

At Casa Nonna, he is unfailingly polite. Not just to me – when the appetizers arrive, he serves us both, and when we tuck into our pasta course, he shovels a couple of his gnocchi onto my plate, unprompted – but also to the waiting staff. He repeatedly stops mid-sentence to say, “That’s lovely, thanks so much,” or “everything is lovely, thank you.” And it’s more than common courtesy.

“I waited tables for seven years, so I really care about stuff like that. It’s [expletive] hard. I had a waiter dream last night. It was like: ‘Table Four’s been here a half an hour and they don’t have any [expletive] water, what is going on?’ Still. From the old days. That’s stress, man,” he says, “that’s real stress.”

Now for the piece by Nicholas Carr, picks up on the thread of his recent book that I’m currently reading, The Glass Cage. It’s about Facebook and the potential ramifications of a social landscape mediated by algorithms:

If and when Facebook perfects its behavior modification algorithms, it would be a fairly trivial exercise to expand their application beyond the realm of shitfaced snapshots. That photo you’re about to post of the protest rally you just marched in? That angry comment about the president? That wild thought that just popped into your mind? You know, maybe those wouldn’t go down so well with the boss.

Read Facebook’s Automated Conscience {rough type, Nicholas Carr’s blog}.