There’s no doubt we’re reading less. But whining won’t change anything.

A refrigerated truck delivering carcasses near the Goutte d'Or district of a Paris, an African and Maghrebian community.
A refrigerated truck delivering carcasses near the Goutte d’Or district of a Paris, an African and Maghrebian community.

This article at the Washington Post keeps getting passed around. It discusses several ideas about why we’re reading less as a nation and what this might mean for our future. While I generally agree with the premise, I’ve got several problems with the article. It automatically excludes online reading. The articles says that throughout the Nineties “this country is reading printed versions of books, magazines and newspapers less and less,” coinciding perfectly with the rise of the digital media. My question is, how and why can we (or should we) exclude online reading as less valuable? Is it? In the article the Internet is limited to being described as a “visually powerful environment in which reading is not required,” but that’s misleading: the most-visited web sites on the Internet are primarily deliverers of text, while the most popular activity, email, is also text-based. This is reading: this is how literacy develops, through organization of thought, through a transformation of words into ideas and vice-versa. No, I don’t think I would dismiss the Internet as strictly a visual medium. We’re not all looking at porn. No credit is given, either, for efficiency: if a message is better translated by a diagram rather than, say, an text-rich owner’s manual, then why shouldn’t it prevail? I’m a big book bigot, but if the message intended equals the message received, then the circuit is complete. The Internet has spawned remarkable research into visually oriented interfaces, in which we discover that by embracing borderline readers, the illiterate and the aliterate with graphic-based messages and content, we lead them towards integration in the larger stream of information gathering and transmission. So perhaps our dropping numbers are actually a reflection of the brand new inclusion of otherwise MIA parts of society, including the poor, immigrants and the otherwise excluded, into our nation’s forward movement. No attempt is made to discern the quality of materials read. So only 7 percent of Americans read more than one book a week, but is there a measure of the intellectual or informative quality of the books read? Does one Danielle Steel novel equal one “Germs, Guns and Steel”? If I read a Benjamin Stora text a week, am I on par with a Clive Cussler fanatic? Is 7 percent bad or good? Maybe it’s even worse than we think, if those 7 percent one-book-a-week readers are simply reading Dean Kuntz but never stopping for James Thurber or even VS Naipul. Two questions I would have liked to see answered are “Do you consider your reading to be more on the order of potboilers, romance novels or mysteries, or biographies, histories or academic texts?” and using the ideas outline in the article, “Do you read for pleasure or for information?” If book clubs are popular, and only 6 percent of “readers” belong to them, then who are those other 94 percent? Status readers who buy books to look intellectual? Who buy them as gifts? A study by the same company quoted in the article, NPD Group, says reading is up among baby boomers. The press release says there’s an increase of 19 minutes of reading time per day for 45- to 65-year-olds when compared to 24- to 40-year-olds. A good discussion of the issue was held at MetaFilter.

Posted May 20, 2001

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