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Americans are Current, Plugged-In, Informed


We know a young woman who is so up to date, it's nearly impossible to mention something she didn't hear about minutes or hours or even days before we did.

Tragic floods in Texas? A breakthrough in cancer research? An heiress's latest dalliance? She got the word, way before we did on TV; or from Internet sites on one of her three computers; or from the hottest, latest, hand-held device she's constantly checking.

Unfortunately for the publishing industry, our young friend is the poster child for declining newspaper and book sales. The circulation of daily newspapers is dropping by two or three percentage points a year. Frantic, the papers are cutting staff, starting Web sites and blogs, and even giving their papers away, just to hold onto young readers. And many publishers have given up printing books of substance, in favor of what sells: romance novels, tell-all tales of naughty starlets, and instant recaps of tragedies and crimes.

Our friend is current as current can be, but she hasn't the time for stories like the warm tale — in the science section of the New York Times — of a pioneer radiologist's love of dangerous x-ray gear.

Nor is there room in our friend's life for nuances that writers like detective novelist James Lee Burke bring to their work. You just can't fit vivid metaphors that make a reader feel the sodden heat and shudder at the looming menace of a moonlit Louisiana bayou onto a text-messaging device.

As more and more Americans absorb information in digital bits and bytes, modern-day philosophers are starting to wonder whether we're a civilization that's become, to quote an expression, a mile wide and an inch deep. We're astoundingly computer literate. But that's not the same as being literate.

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