The Future of Reading

on March 13, 2008

We constantly hear about the dire state of reading in this country. The NEA report (pdf) says:

Although there has been measurable progress in recent years in reading ability at the elementary school level,
all progress appears to halt as children enter their teenage years. There is a general decline in reading among teenage and adult Americans.

I skimmed the report and thought some of their predictions were rather exaggerated–but that’s not surprising since the rely on the donations of individuals and government money to fund their organization, so if all is rosy or if the trends aren’t devastating, they lose money.

I’m not saying that there ISN’T a problem. Just look at Jen’s post on Monday and you can see that there are idiots in all sectors of life, and math is just as an important skill as reading. But in looking at the chart:

Table 1A. Percentage of Adults Who Read a Book Not Required for Work or School,
by Age Group
Age 1992 2002 Change
18—24 59% 52% -7 pp
25—34 64% 59% -5 pp
35—44 66% 59% -7 pp
45—54 64% 61% *-3 pp
55—64 59% 58% *-1 pp
65—74 55% 54% *-1 pp
75+ 42% 44% *+2 pp
pp = percentage points
* no statistically significant change from 1992
Source: National Endowment for the Arts, Survey of Public Participation in the Arts

. . . I think that it’s encouraging that there is only a 7% drop in a ten year period among younger readers, while there is a statistically insignificant drop among those over 45.

There are a LOT of reasons why younger adults don’t read. They are usually working more hours. They have young kids. They are more active. They simply don’t have the time. When more and more families need to earn two incomes just to make ends meet, reading is just a luxury they can’t afford–not the cost, but the time.

Young people have options for their entertainment. Video games. Movies. Dating. Sports. Part-time jobs. They have to read for school; reading for pleasure is almost foreign to them.

One of the problems I see in a lot of the data being presented is that they are making a lot of assumptions about WHY people aren’t reading as much. There are not enough good books. They are too expensive. They would rather play video games. But the truth is, I believe there is one reason: time. People are busier now than they were 50 years ago, and that is cutting into their reading time, which is making reading across the board more difficult. (If you don’t read regularly, you lose the “skill.” Not that you CAN’T read, but that you don’t find the entertainment in it.)

Anyway, anecdotally I have a story about high school kids. On Monday I spoke to every English class at a local high school. It was a private school, but the results are virtually the same as when I spoke to an underprivileged public school last year. I also ask, “Who likes to read for fun?”

A third to a half of the kids raise their hands (and I’ll bet some think it’s not cool and didn’t raise their hands.) The more readers were in the younger grades. I don’t think that a third of 15 year olds reading for fun is dismal. Considering that they have 1-3 hours of homework a day, sports, friends, chores, video games and movies, the fact that 33% take the time to read because they want to is great.

In addition, I found that those who said they read for fun could talk about the books and authors they liked and WHY. They knew what genres they liked, they knew what they didn’t like, and they were open to suggestions they hadn’t considered. I had kids writing down authors names and book titles when I made recommendations in the genre they most liked reading.

When I was growing up, there were lots of kids who didn’t read. This is nothing new. We might say it’s based on what our parents do, but any parent of multiple kids knows that’s not true. I read to all my kids every night until they were 5 or 6. I read in front of them. So does my husband. I promote reading and will buy them any book they want. But my oldest daughter doesn’t really like to read unless something REALLY grabs her; my second daughter reads constantly and just finished A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY.

Readers today are reading more . . . but because there are more books on sale than ever before, they have more choices and therefore book sales on individual books are down. I wish I could find the report I read last year that said sales were flat–meaning, the same numbers of books are selling, but because there are more titles, books aren’t doing as “well.”

The kids in the high school I spoke at loved mysteries, thrillers, romance, and fantasy. Fantasy was the winner. Every class had a girl who loved romance and a guy who loved techno-thrillers like Tom Clancy. They read YA authors as well as adult fiction authors. Many had read Stephen King, and in the FRESHMAN class, five of the girls had read CARRIE and there was a discussion about it.

I think more authors and readers should talk about what they love to read. I get emails all the time from people who say that they “aren’t much of a reader” but they picked up my book and enjoyed it. I’d say, they must WANT to be a reader if they are willing to buy a book in the first place.

There is hope. I’m not saying there isn’t a problem with literacy or reading, I’m just saying that there are readers out there and we need to communicate with them and encourage them to read more, not just focus on those who don’t like to read. Putting literacy aside–because that is something we need to fix, there’s no excuse for people not being able to read in America–I frankly don’t think we should target younger adults (under 45) who simply don’t WANT to read. We need to find those who loved it as a teenager, and find ways to bring them back into the fold as a younger adult.