Thursday, May 08, 2008

The End of Reading?

Here is an excerpt from a New Yorker article I recently read (only a few months late) that I found to be particularly disturbing. Have YOU read a book lately? Has anyone you known read a book lately? The sports column doesn't count. TV Guide doesn't count. Even this blog doesn't count, though I pride myself on it's literary content. (That was a joke... a weak attempt at what is called irony in literary terms, I believe.) Odds are, if ten people read this post, that only four of them will have read a book in the last YEAR. That scares me. I have read a book in the last week. If I were reading as much as I did before I started frantically taking pictures (my new hobby) I probably would have read two books in the last week. Please read. It is good for the mind, and pretty much everything else.

Twilight of the Books (link to full article here)
What will life be like if people stop reading?
by Caleb Crain December 24, 2007

In 1937, twenty-nine per cent of American adults told the pollster George Gallup that they were reading a book. In 1955, only seventeen per cent said they were. Pollsters began asking the question with more latitude. In 1978, a survey found that fifty-five per cent of respondents had read a book in the previous six months. The question was even looser in 1998 and 2002, when the General Social Survey found that roughly seventy per cent of Americans had read a novel, a short story, a poem, or a play in the preceding twelve months. And, this August, seventy-three per cent of respondents to another poll said that they had read a book of some kind, not excluding those read for work or school, in the past year. If you didn’t read the fine print, you might think that reading was on the rise.

You wouldn’t think so, however, if you consulted the Census Bureau and the National Endowment for the Arts, who, since 1982, have asked thousands of Americans questions about reading that are not only detailed but consistent. The results, first reported by the N.E.A. in 2004, are dispiriting. In 1982, 56.9 per cent of Americans had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. The proportion fell to fifty-four per cent in 1992, and to 46.7 per cent in 2002. Last month, the N.E.A. released a follow-up report, “To Read or Not to Read,” which showed correlations between the decline of reading and social phenomena as diverse as income disparity, exercise, and voting. In his introduction, the N.E.A. chairman, Dana Gioia, wrote, “Poor reading skills correlate heavily with lack of employment, lower wages, and fewer opportunities for advancement.”

This decline is not news to those who depend on print for a living. In 1970, according to Editor & Publisher International Year Book, there were 62.1 million weekday newspapers in circulation—about 0.3 papers per person. Since 1990, circulation has declined steadily, and in 2006 there were just 52.3 million weekday papers—about 0.17 per person. In January 1994, forty-nine per cent of respondents told the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that they had read a newspaper the day before. In 2006, only forty-three per cent said so, including those who read online. Book sales, meanwhile, have stagnated. The Book Industry Study Group estimates that sales fell from 8.27 books per person in 2001 to 7.93 in 2006. According to the Department of Labor, American households spent an average of a hundred and sixty-three dollars on reading in 1995 and a hundred and twenty-six dollars in 2005. In “To Read or Not to Read,” the N.E.A. reports that American households’ spending on books, adjusted for inflation, is “near its twenty-year low,” even as the average price of a new book has increased.

More alarming are indications that Americans are losing not just the will to read but even the ability. According to the Department of Education, between 1992 and 2003 the average adult’s skill in reading prose slipped one point on a five-hundred-point scale, and the proportion who were proficient—capable of such tasks as “comparing viewpoints in two editorials”—declined from fifteen per cent to thirteen. The Department of Education found that reading skills have improved moderately among fourth and eighth graders in the past decade and a half, with the largest jump occurring just before the No Child Left Behind Act took effect, but twelfth graders seem to be taking after their elders. Their reading scores fell an average of six points between 1992 and 2005, and the share of proficient twelfth-grade readers dropped from forty per cent to thirty-five per cent. The steepest declines were in “reading for literary experience”—the kind that involves “exploring themes, events, characters, settings, and the language of literary works,” in the words of the department’s test-makers. In 1992, fifty-four per cent of twelfth graders told the Department of Education that they talked about their reading with friends at least once a week. By 2005, only thirty-seven per cent said they did.

The erosion isn’t unique to America. Some of the best data come from the Netherlands, where in 1955 researchers began to ask people to keep diaries of how they spent every fifteen minutes of their leisure time. Time-budget diaries yield richer data than surveys, and people are thought to be less likely to lie about their accomplishments if they have to do it four times an hour. Between 1955 and 1975, the decades when television was being introduced into the Netherlands, reading on weekday evenings and weekends fell from five hours a week to 3.6, while television watching rose from about ten minutes a week to more than ten hours. During the next two decades, reading continued to fall and television watching to rise, though more slowly. By 1995, reading, which had occupied twenty-one per cent of people’s spare time in 1955, accounted for just nine per cent.

The most striking results were generational. In general, older Dutch people read more. It would be natural to infer from this that each generation reads more as it ages, and, indeed, the researchers found something like this to be the case for earlier generations. But, with later ones, the age-related growth in reading dwindled. The turning point seems to have come with the generation born in the nineteen-forties. By 1995, a Dutch college graduate born after 1969 was likely to spend fewer hours reading each week than a little-educated person born before 1950. As far as reading habits were concerned, academic credentials mattered less than whether a person had been raised in the era of television. The N.E.A., in its twenty years of data, has found a similar pattern. Between 1982 and 2002, the percentage of Americans who read literature declined not only in every age group but in every generation—even in those moving from youth into middle age, which is often considered the most fertile time of life for reading. We are reading less as we age, and we are reading less than people who were our age ten or twenty years ago.

There’s no reason to think that reading and writing are about to become extinct, but some sociologists speculate that reading books for pleasure will one day be the province of a special “reading class,” much as it was before the arrival of mass literacy, in the second half of the nineteenth century. They warn that it probably won’t regain the prestige of exclusivity; it may just become “an increasingly arcane hobby.” Such a shift would change the texture of society. If one person decides to watch “The Sopranos” rather than to read Leonardo Sciascia’s novella “To Each His Own,” the culture goes on largely as before—both viewer and reader are entertaining themselves while learning something about the Mafia in the bargain. But if, over time, many people choose television over books, then a nation’s conversation with itself is likely to change. A reader learns about the world and imagines it differently from the way a viewer does; according to some experimental psychologists, a reader and a viewer even think differently. If the eclipse of reading continues, the alteration is likely to matter in ways that aren’t foreseeable.


The antagonism between words and moving images seems to start early. In August, scientists at the University of Washington revealed that babies aged between eight and sixteen months know on average six to eight fewer words for every hour of baby DVDs and videos they watch daily. A 2005 study in Northern California found that a television in the bedroom lowered the standardized-test scores of third graders. And the conflict continues throughout a child’s development. In 2001, after analyzing data on more than a million students around the world, the researcher Micha Razel found “little room for doubt” that television worsened performance in reading, science, and math. The relationship wasn’t a straight line but “an inverted check mark”: a small amount of television seemed to benefit children; more hurt. For nine-year-olds, the optimum was two hours a day; for seventeen-year-olds, half an hour. Razel guessed that the younger children were watching educational shows, and, indeed, researchers have shown that a five-year-old boy who watches “Sesame Street” is likely to have higher grades even in high school. Razel noted, however, that fifty-five per cent of students were exceeding their optimal viewing time by three hours a day, thereby lowering their academic achievement by roughly one grade level.

The Internet, happily, does not so far seem to be antagonistic to literacy. Researchers recently gave Michigan children and teen-agers home computers in exchange for permission to monitor their Internet use. The study found that grades and reading scores rose with the amount of time spent online. Even visits to pornography Web sites improved academic performance. Of course, such synergies may disappear if the Internet continues its YouTube-fuelled evolution away from print and toward television.

No effort of will is likely to make reading popular again. Children may be browbeaten, but adults resist interference with their pleasures. It may simply be the case that many Americans prefer to learn about the world and to entertain themselves with television and other streaming media, rather than with the printed word, and that it is taking a few generations for them to shed old habits like newspapers and novels. The alternative is that we are nearing the end of a pendulum swing, and that reading will return, driven back by forces as complicated as those now driving it away.

But if the change is permanent, and especially if the slide continues, the world will feel different, even to those who still read. Because the change has been happening slowly for decades, everyone has a sense of what is at stake, though it is rarely put into words. There is something to gain, of course, or no one would ever put down a book and pick up a remote. Streaming media give actual pictures and sounds instead of mere descriptions of them. “Television completes the cycle of the human sensorium,” Marshall McLuhan proclaimed in 1967. Moving and talking images are much richer in information about a performer’s appearance, manner, and tone of voice, and they give us the impression that we know more about her health and mood, too. The viewer may not catch all the details of a candidate’s health-care plan, but he has a much more definite sense of her as a personality, and his response to her is therefore likely to be more full of emotion. There is nothing like this connection in print. A feeling for a writer never touches the fact of the writer herself, unless reader and writer happen to meet. In fact, from Shakespeare to Pynchon, the personalities of many writers have been mysterious.

Emotional responsiveness to streaming media harks back to the world of primary orality, and, as in Plato’s day, the solidarity amounts almost to a mutual possession. “Electronic technology fosters and encourages unification and involvement,” in McLuhan’s words. The viewer feels at home with his show, or else he changes the channel. The closeness makes it hard to negotiate differences of opinion. It can be amusing to read a magazine whose principles you despise, but it is almost unbearable to watch such a television show. And so, in a culture of secondary orality, we may be less likely to spend time with ideas we disagree with.

Self-doubt, therefore, becomes less likely. In fact, doubt of any kind is rarer. It is easy to notice inconsistencies in two written accounts placed side by side. With text, it is even easy to keep track of differing levels of authority behind different pieces of information. The trust that a reader grants to the New York Times, for example, may vary sentence by sentence. A comparison of two video reports, on the other hand, is cumbersome. Forced to choose between conflicting stories on television, the viewer falls back on hunches, or on what he believed before he started watching. Like the peasants studied by Luria, he thinks in terms of situations and story lines rather than abstractions.

And he may have even more trouble than Luria’s peasants in seeing himself as others do. After all, there is no one looking back at the television viewer. He is alone, though he, and his brain, may be too distracted to notice it. The reader is also alone, but the N.E.A. reports that readers are more likely than non-readers to play sports, exercise, visit art museums, attend theatre, paint, go to music events, take photographs, and volunteer. Proficient readers are also more likely to vote. Perhaps readers venture so readily outside because what they experience in solitude gives them confidence. Perhaps reading is a prototype of independence. No matter how much one worships an author, Proust wrote, “all he can do is give us desires.” Reading somehow gives us the boldness to act on them. Such a habit might be quite dangerous for a democracy to lose.


Honey Nut said...


Rather than actually read the article which you uploaded, I'll go straight to making my comment! Some of us are just too busy to read. Life can be so stressful that the only way one can calmly focus time on reading is in a distracted state of mind, if you follow. I actually think the issue is more about the quality of reading material, which can be truly nourishing for the soul.