Useless Dudes in Cyber Era

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February is National Reading Month in the United States -- and not a moment too soon. Last November, the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts issued "To Read or Not to Read," a sobering report detailing how American youth have been reading progressively less and worse, with both frequency and proficiency declining at "troubling rates." Once American kids enter adolescence, the NEA intoned, "they fall victim to a general culture which does not encourage or reinforce reading ... [so] they do more poorly in school, in the job market and in civic life." Yikes.

As American youth devolve from lettered erudition toward incoherent grunting, Russia is raising a generation of young readers who are kicking butt and taking names. The latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, compiled by Boston College researchers from 215,000 subjects in 40 countries, reports that in fourth-grade students' ability to read both literary and informational texts, Russia's children rank No. 1 in the world -- and one with a bullet, as Russian scores improved markedly over last the PIRLS measurement in 2001.

Before discouraged Americans decide to surrender world leadership to an impending tsunami of little Russian super-readers, consider several points. First, don't panic: I have been hearing about the problems of U.S. literacy all my life, from "Why Johnny Can't Read" (1955) to "A Nation at Risk" (1983) and the NEA's earlier "Reading at Risk" (2004). These and myriad other fine studies have made serious points and contributions, surely, but they never head off further rounds of frightening reports, do they?

Second, note a key demographic: The NEA reproves American teenagers, while the PIRLS lauds Russian ten-year-olds -- apples and oranges. Actually, preteen Americans are improving. The percentage of 9-year-olds who "read almost every day for fun" rose a tad from 1984 to 2004, and the group's median reading scores rose considerably. The problem comes at the next level: The percentage of 17-year-old daily readers plummeted during the 1984-2004 period, and their average reading scores declined correspondingly.

What about Russian teenage readers? Will the bionic fourth-graders of PIRLS fame maintain their collective reading jones down the line? Judging by the former 10-year-olds I teach, the answer is: Ask a different question. While the Russian undergraduates I have seen from 2000 to 2008 do enjoy a somewhat broader base in traditional literature than my American students, the difference between them is nowhere near as great as that between both groups taken together and their analogues of 20 years ago in the venue and nature of their reading. Here, in fact, lies the real concern for both nations.

Many U.S. students today, from elementary school through college, not only do the majority of their reading via the Internet, they apparently do the majority of their living there too. In the documentary "Growing Up Online," shown on U.S. public television Jan. 22, viewers got a picture of youth culture more revealing and worrisome than the NEA's. Here one saw a bright, engaging high school senior who, thanks to the short-cuts long available on the net, had never actually read a book -- repeat, never. Viewers also met normal, prosperous parents who had literally no idea of the focus of their children's lives -- and sometimes deaths -- until they learned what was happening in their offsprings' cyberspace.

Russia's kids in aggregate are less invested in the aggressively expanding and largely unmonitored online universe than their U.S. peers, which might explain why mine seem somewhat more in touch with "dead-tree books." But the gap is closing fast, as anyone who walks by Moscow's Internet cafes knows.

American teenagers are reading, all right, and writing, too -- but in cyberversions of both. Their preferred texts are remixes that speed digestion -- such as the quick-study Internet Hamlet, where poor Yorick, formerly "a fellow of infinite jest," becomes "a very funny guy" -- while their writing limns a stark, post-demotic landscape of emoticons and pop text messaging ("i got $ r u up 4 smting kool 2nite?"). Russian kids text- message furiously, too, and may already be learning, alas, that the classic "superfluous men" of Russian literature are now "useless dudes" or something.

So, it's actually National Reading Month everywhere. But the real issue isn't reading as such, it's whether we -- the useless dudes and funny guys who still read and write columns like this one -- are ready to engage Literacy 2.0 and the brave new world it represents.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.