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Kari Henley

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Summer Reading and a Balanced Budget: The New Oxymorons

Posted: 08/01/11 04:46 PM ET

Summertime often harkens back the memory of reading dime-store novels, plowing through the "Harry Potter" series with the kids, or cruising the fiction bestsellers while lounging by the pool. Read anything good lately?

Most likely, if you are reading this article, you are one of the few mutants left who actually enjoy stimulating your mind. Alas, for the masses, those days of cracking a book for fun seem to be as far gone as a functioning government. What is everyone doing with our time these days, and how much of it is really productive or restorative?

After attending the Women's Leadership Exchange conference in New York City recently, I was coming home on the train and listening to CNN legal analyst Lisa Bloom give a lecture about the "dumbing down" of American women. I had my ice water and favorite cupcake from Grand Central and looked forward to the ride home to check out her new book. As I settled in, I glanced around at the packed car to see what everyone else was doing. Guess how many books I saw? Zero. Nada. A few newspapers, but the rest was a sea of screens. The flickers of Angry Birds, Facebook and Gmail dominated the railcar activity. No one noticed the scenery.

According to the Jenkins Group, 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year, and 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years. We should be afraid, very afraid. When I was growing up, and still to this day, going to a bookstore and coming out with a new treasure is one of the high points in life. Our family loves to frequent the flagship Barnes & Noble in Springfield, Mass., yet recently I noticed that over 50 percent of the floor space is dominated by an in-house Starbucks and racks of toys rather than books.

As a mother with children in high school, junior high and elementary school, I expect all my children to complete a certain number of books over the summer -- and all balk at the idea. "Nobody reads, Mom," they retort to me over their computer terminals, where they're playing Poptropica, surfing YouTube or chatting on Skype. The Jenkins Group seems to confirm that my family is not alone. The study further shows that one third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college. These are our future leaders.

Bloom states in her book that despite the dismal reading stats, American girls have now surpassed the boys in educational performance, are playing sports at equal levels, and have unlimited opportunity never imagined by their feminist foremothers. Yet today, women of all ages obsess over Angelina Jolie fighting with Jennifer Anniston, what Lady Gaga is wearing, or how Kim Kardashian is going to slim down for her multimillion-dollar wedding, instead of focusing on issues that really matter, like local government affairs or human rights issues. Straight-A students of both genders do not know how many sides a triangle has, or in which country Mexico City is located.

Somehow it is cool to be an idiot. Just look at our politicians, huffing and puffing and hogging up the airwaves with toddleresque whines. Our legislature looks more like "Maury" than the esteemed halls of the greatest government in the world. Do you think anyone in the House or Senate actually read the Cut, Cap and Balance plan or any of the budget proposals beyond the sound bytes? Have any citizens? Why bother? We are living like the French aristocracy before the Revolution and prefer to party down with the latest Beyoncé track on iTunes than accept that we are on the brink of disaster. How could we have let it come to this?

Somehow, it has got to stop. It is time to turn this ship around, and everyone is going to have to get out in the water and kick like hell to avoid tumbling over the brink. While it may sound trite, we have to start somewhere, and I believe reading books is an excellent place to start.

Here are my top five reasons to become reacquainted with the printed word:

  1. Reading is relaxing. Reading is a wonderful way to stop the madness, and we all need a little time away from multitasking. Ideally, read an actual paper bound book in some sort of comfy corner for bonus points.
  2. Reading is stimulating without stressing you out. I love the sensation of being lost in an amazing fiction story that just will not let me go, and the savory moments of closing the book with a twinge of regret.
  3. Reading a variety of materials at once can make it more fun. Go to your local library or bookstore and select a few genres. I recommend starting with some sort of motivational or self-help book, a fast-paced mystery and a current-events book. Stack them all by your bedside. Try to hit the sack a little early, and grab whichever suits you at that particular moment, rather than cruising off to TMZ. If you are a morning person, reverse this plan and grab a book to read over your morning coffee. Even 15 minutes does the trick.
  4. Reading gives you something to talk about. Bringing the stories you are reading to the office, dinner table or a gathering with friends is a good conversation starter that keeps us from bitching. I am infamous for saying, "I just read the most amazing thing..."
  5. Reading will save your soul. Really. No one cares how many Facebook posts you put up, how many lovely emails you craft or how many reality shows you log. Instead of the current societal menu of light beer and chips, feed yourself a rich diet of slow food that will stay with you, improve your life, change a habit, make you cry or give you a new skill.

If you are not yet convinced, check out this hilarious video comparing college students' knowledge of reality TV with their knowledge of reality itself.

What are your thoughts, HuffPost readers? Are we "dumbed down" so far that we can't see the end coming? Do you still read books, and if so, what kinds? How do you resist the constant seduction of time-wasting activities? I'd love to hear your comments below.

 

Follow Kari Henley on Twitter: www.twitter.com/karihenley