February 16, 2008
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There's a lot of talk about how nobody reads anymore, about how Kids Today have no attention span, or how fewer adults read books than at any time in modern history.

These judgments are hard to make, if you care more about the facts than you care about scoring points. Sure, kids today are worse than you were when you were a kid; that's a given. But what about history?

Do fewer adults read books today than they did in other modern times? Take 18th century England. Did people read more, back then? A bunch of people read the Bible, and Pilgrim's Progress. A bunch of Londoners read more than that. But how much reading was the habit of crofters in the Highlands, or cottagers in forgotten towns of Ireland, or sailors? Some did — we have letters, we have diaries, we have bequests — but I think we don't know how many did not.

Even simpler questions about the very recent past are tricky. Are baseball players better today than they were in, say, the 1950's? People have studied this intensely, and people should be able to know: plenty of people who watched Barry Bonds also watched Mickey Mantle. Nolan Ryan pitched to both of them (Mantle in Spring training). Even among expert contemporary witnesses, it can be hard to reach a consensus. (For me, the clinching argument is Mays' catch of Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series. Contemporaries thought this was amazing, the greatest fielding feat they'd ever seen, the catch of the century. Today, it's just a fine play.)