Monday, November 19, 2007

Old News Rehashed: Americans Are Reading Less Than They Used To

In a follow up to their 2004 study on reading, The National Endowment of the Arts has released a new, even more depressing report that provides further details on the decline of reading in the United States.


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I let one of my fictional characters rant on my blog over the weekend about a really good missed opportunity to bring a book to a non-reading segment of the population.

It's a two-way street. People can't be enticed by books they don't hear about.

Christopher M. Park said...

I have a less depressing theory about why at least some of the people in the 17-22 age bracket are reading less. I'm 24 myself, and I can tell you that I probably almost fit into those poor statistics (when it came to pleasure reading) during the 17-22 age bracket -- as did most of the other book lovers that my wife and I knew.

Now, all of us were certainly reading plenty of textbooks, newspaper/journal articles, and nonfiction works related to our careers (programming/computer work, in my case), but pleasure reading was a rare thing.

This is because the pressure on juniors and seniors in high school is higher now than it ever was, and most of us were taking 5 or 6 college-level classes that kept us busy. Plus all the various extracurriculars -- sports, music, clubs, etc -- that the modern teenager is involved in. College is also a very busy time for most, either because of all the intense socializing and such that many subscribe to, or (in my and my wife's case) all the extracurriculars. We both were working through college, not because we had to in order to make ends meet, but because we didn't want to erode all our savings while in college, and because we each had opportunities to jump-start our careers in a major way during that time period. The year after college is also very busy, often even traumatic, for most students as their social life disappears (if they were that sort) and they start job-hunting (in a very tight market at this point -- competition isn't just fierce in the publishing industry).

What my wife and I are now seeing, with all our friends having been out of college for a year or two, is that everyone is reading a lot more again. We recommend books to our friends and vice-versa, we talk about what we like, and some of our friends even formed an impromptu monthly book club as way to keep in touch.

If you look at what all of our reading habits now, we're probably in the top to upper-middle percentages (depending on what else the individual has going on in a given month), whereas we were all in the lower percentages just a few years before. And these are all people who grew up reading in the top percentages, all of us participated in "Battle of the Books" competitions and other reading programs as a kid, and most write short stories, poetry, or novels.

I don't pretend to know what everyone in the world is doing, and certainly the lack of literacy in many people I know is a little bit shocking. However, statistics can be misleading, and I think the notion that the current generations won't have any/many readers is a false one. I think certain societal conditions make reading difficult even for those who love reading during the late teens and early twenties -- but before long, those who love it will resurface on the other side.

I suppose we'll see if I'm right in about 10 years, when we see the statistics for the late-twenties crowd. At worst, I would be willing to bet serious money that many people rediscover their love of reading when they have kids, and start reading to them. Hopefully that then leads to other kinds of reading for the adults themselves.

Kaleb Nation said...

Those figures are a bit misleading, so I don't let them depress me :) . In two years, the Harry Potter generation will then be in college, and those numbers, who grew up reading, will be taking hold of those audiences.

Take a look at what's number 1 right now: Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. The reason is that Harry's audience is now in their late teens and want something more teen-ish. Three years from now, they'll be reading even bigger books. There is this huge market of readers that just keeps getting older, and as they have children, those kids will read as well.