AMERICA WON'T WIN TILL IT READS MORE And instead it's reading less. Yet reading is strongly connected to communicating, thinking, imagining -- the skills any country will need to compete globally.
By Stratford P. Sherman REPORTER ASSOCIATE Laurie Kretchmar

(FORTUNE Magazine) – IF YOU CAN understand this article, odds are you read at the level of a college freshman or better. In the U.S., which has produced more high school dropouts than college grads, that aptitude pushes you well outside the mainstream of society. This fact should worry you -- for while the statistics on basic literacy look encouraging, they mask trends that, left to continue, will steadily corrode American competitiveness. Once defined as the ability merely to sign one's name, basic literacy now implies at least a fourth-grade education, enough, say, to read a McDonald's menu. About 90% of U.S. adults have reached such a level, according to the Education Department. Yet experts on international competition think this is far from good enough if the U.S. wants to prosper in an information-based global economy. Work tasks in coming years will be more complex, not less, and understanding them will require better reading skills. Perhaps more worrisome is that Americans who can read, don't. The buzzword is ''aliteracy.'' Beckoned by countless alternatives -- notably work and TV -- Americans seem ever less willing to devote their time and attention to page after page of silent black type. John P. Robinson, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, has collected some of the best available data on how people spend their time, and his surveys show that the average adult American reads just 24 minutes a day. That represents a one-quarter decline since 1965. Newspaper sales per household have been plunging for years, and today roughly half of American adults almost never read books or magazines. Leonard Riggio, CEO of Barnes & Noble, the largest U.S. book retailer, guesses that half the books his customers buy -- some as gifts, some perhaps just for display -- go unread. This phenomenon has spread even among the highly educated. Ask yourself how many books you've read recently. Now that we have our MTV -- and our VCR and Nintendo and Walkman -- the prospect of plowing through a book doesn't seem as easy as it did in simpler times. Consider Robert Lichter, 43, a Harvard Ph.D. who runs the nonprofit Center for Media and Public Affairs, which analyzes the content of television news broadcasts. Says he: ''Now, when I come home tired from a long day, I turn on the TV instead of picking up a book. It's easier.'' % Ain't that the truth. SHOULD ANYONE CARE? After all, people get information from television, radio, videocassettes, and audio tapes. Workers can learn their jobs by attending a class or putting a tape in the VCR. Computer databases give you more facts than you'll ever need, and CNN tells you what's happening in the world. Who needs to read? The answer is everyone who hopes to be productive or successful. Reading turns out to be strongly connected to many of the most important skills in business -- among them speech and writing, the primary forms of human communication. Management experts say that communicating often and clearly with workers will be among every manager's key skills in coming years, while in an interconnected world, skillful communication outside one's company becomes steadily more important. Yet just as these trends take hold, many managers are becoming worse communicators. If you doubt it, a look at the standard of memo writing around your shop will probably persuade you. Reading transcends the mere transmission of information: It fosters an imaginative dialogue between the text and the reader's mind that actually helps people think. Monsanto CEO Richard Mahoney, a devoted reader, regards reading skill as essential for success: ''People who read more seem to have that marvelous ability to see linkages between unrelated events. That's the most important quality an executive can have.'' Research backs up Mahoney's point: In general, the higher a person's reading skills, the higher his professional achievement. Many media compete with print; none can replace it. No other information technology packs as much data into as few widely comprehensible symbols as the written word. None is so portable or so suited to self-pacing by users. Nor can any other medium economically distribute the depth and breadth of instantly usable information that print does. A publisher can turn a profit on a book that sells just 10,000 copies, whereas films, TV shows, and even most computer databases require much larger audiences. Through a short chain of causality, America's aliteracy could lead to declining competitiveness vs. other nations. A study by the National Center on Education and the Economy -- a nonprofit policy analysis group chaired by Ira Magaziner, a brilliant, woolly-haired consultant to such corporations as GE -- argues persuasively that the skills of U.S. workers are and may continue to be well matched to the available jobs. According to the report, that's because 95% of American companies still cling to turn-of-the-century methods of organizing work that do not require highly skilled workers. Demand for janitors, salesclerks, and bolt tighteners hasn't abated. Magaziner's report says that American business can compete successfully in world markets in either of two ways. It can pay workers lower wages than prevail abroad, or reorganize in ways that enable workers to produce more. Reorganizing, the more attractive choice, requires changes that most managers can recite by heart: eliminating layers in the organization and pushing authority down into the hands of front-line workers. But giving workers more power and responsibility is another way of saying that they'll be thinking, judging, and deciding more. Magaziner worries that workers who don't read well, and therefore don't think well, may not be able to handle the added responsibility. And the less they read, the worse their chances grow. Many large companies know they've got a problem and are trying to address it. Motorola is preparing to invest $5 million in teaching production workers basic skills such as reading. Since 1982, Ford Motor has sent some 32,000 workers through a skills program that includes reading. Of course every problem is someone's opportunity: Simon & Schuster foresees a $500-million-a- year market selling remedial reading and other basic skills programs to corporations. Practically no one disputes the surest way to produce skillful readers. Educators and informed students of education -- such as the Committee for Economic Development, sponsored by 200 blue-chip corporations, including Procter & Gamble and Ford -- agree that aptitude for reading depends largely on the foundation parents provide their children. Most crucial: reading aloud to preschoolers and setting an example of adult reading at home. Even a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters acknowledges that ''the biggest predictor of scholastic success is the time parents spend reading to their children.'' By that criterion, the outlook is not bright. While no one has reliable figures on time spent reading aloud, it's clear that harried Americans aren't spending much time on their kids. More than two-thirds of mothers of school- age children work. Having showered, worked, eaten, and watched three to four hours of TV each day, the typical American mother devotes less than an hour and a half a day to child care; fathers spend less than half an hour, according to the University of Maryland's Robinson. Quality time, perhaps, but what about reading Goodnight Moon to dear little Kimberly and Max? BLAMING TV is easy -- and in large part justified. Since 1980, when the two- TV household became the norm, that second set has assumed a growing role in child care. John MacDonald, an Assistant Secretary of Education, points out that ''children are spending more time in front of the television set than in school.'' Daniel Burke, CEO of Capital Cities/ABC, concedes that much of kids' TV is junk. His analysis is depressing: ''Television's capacity to enthrall and distract children has probably been helpful to parents in the short run but destructive to children's tendencies to read and imagine.'' Despite the ascendancy of moving images and recorded sound in American life, the printed word will likely remain for centuries the foremost repository of mankind's accumulated knowledge -- not just a database but also a vessel for history and culture and all the lessons wrung from thousands of years of human experience. If Americans increasingly disregard it, the effects may touch our ability to think and imagine at all levels, from the mundane to the largest and most sweeping. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, the limits of our language are the limits of our world. If so, our world could someday collapse like matter into a black hole. Brad Leithauser, a poet and novelist, argues that Americans who don't read once popular fiction by Jane Austen or Charles Dickens -- and who don't engage their minds as such books require -- are losing patience even with the widely enjoyed black and white movies of just 30 years ago. Reason: Black and white requires the viewer to imagine too much. Yes, inadequate reading skills are hurting U.S. business right now. But unless Americans start reading more, they may someday lose their ability to imagine much of anything for themselves -- including a world different from the one they see on the screen.