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The Case of the Vanishing Reader

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IT'S hard to know which insult lobbed by a senior Japanese politician stung America's national pride more - his charge that "US workers are too lazy," or that they're illiterate. Packing a one-two punch, Yoshio Sakurauchi, speaker of the lower house of Parliament, criticized Americans for working fewer hours than the Japanese. He also reportedly complained that "about 30 percent" of the United States workforce "cannot even read" -- a charge he later denied making.

Mr. Sakurauchi exaggerates on both counts, of course. America's productivity outpaces that of Japan. And one of the most-quoted books of the hour is Juliet Schor's "The Overworked American," a well-researched plea for a shorter workweek. As for illiteracy, estimates put it at around 5 percent, with functional illiteracy reaching an estimated 15 percent.

These rates are still distressingly high. But if I were to choose the less worrisome of Sakurauchi's two alleged American shortcomings, I'd pick laziness. There are ways to motivate adults to work faster, harder, better. Teaching them to read is more complicated.

Then there is the growing challenge of getting even literate people to read. What is called aliteracy - having the ability to read but choosing not to - may be a more widespread problem than illiteracy.

The latest sobering evidence of creeping aliteracy comes from the publishing industry. A new study by the American Booksellers Association finds that 60 percent of American households - three-fifths - didn't buy a single book last year. Equally alarming is the news that older readers make up the largest group of book buyers.

What an ominous trend for the book industry - a shrinking, graying core of customers. And what a contrast to a book-loving country like Finland, where in 1990 five million people bought 25 million books.

Although some of the slump in the US can be attributed to the recession, publishers express concern that much of the drop in sales appears unrelated to economic conditions. They fear they are permanently losing serious readers to jobs, electronics, sports, and other leisure activities.

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