Decline of Reading, 1957

Concerns about literacy levels in the US and distractions of other technologies are not new. Here’s an amusing illustration:

In the late 1950s, Mike Wallace, the late television journalist, hosted a TV interview program that was just like “Charlie Rose” except that it was live and sponsored by Phillip Morris cigarettes, which Wallace chain-smoked on camera. One evening the guest was Bennett Cerf, the co-founder and longtime president of Random House books. Cerf was also a panelist on the popular game show What’s My Line.


After discussing the lowbrow character of most television programming, Wallace says, “Bennett, here’s an interesting statistic. According to a Gallup poll, the United States has the lowest proportion of book readers of any major English-speaking democracy. In 1955 only thirty nine percent of us read even one book or more, despite the fact that we have the highest level of formal education in the world. How do you account for that?” Cerf, who notes that his appearances on What’s My Line pay for his summer house in Mount Kisco, argues that TV does not take people away from reading because there is a certain population that would be doing other things anyway. He instead sees the culprit as the fact that there is so much more to read besides books. “Look at The New York Sunday Times,” he says, “it weighs about four tons, you drop it on your foot, you break a toe.”

Well, the fat Sunday NY Times problem has been taken care of (people under 40: it was an enormous document), but there’s even more other stuff to read now. And more TV than Cerf could have dreamt of in his philosophy.

The video is held in the Harry Ransom collection at the University of Texas at Austin and a highly recommended cultural artifact.

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