Where Have All the Readers Gone?

By Paul Duckworth, MLS

“I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do.” —Neil Gaiman

Recently, I wrote here about print versus shutterstock_548101636digital and raised the question as to whether the physical book is dying. My question today may seem very similar but it’s really more broad and speculative. In fact, it’s a series of questions.

Is reading on the decline? Are we in a “post-literate era?” Is the act of reading itself on the way out, to be replaced by video, the spoken word, game apps, data implants to the brain, knowledge pills, or what have you?

If the answer is yes, it is in decline, then who or what do we pin the blame on? What can we, as librarians, do to combat it? And why do we want to push back against the trend, other than to save our own profession?

To begin, while it may be trite, we Americans have become multi-taskers, switching from e-mail to social media to news to game apps, then back to our latest ebook. Coupled with this, our attention spans have shrunk. We have increasingly shifted from print to moving images. This trend is not necessarily “bad.” It simply describes the direction in which contemporary culture is moving.

So, what’s happened to reading? We librarians have witnessed the rise of “short reads,” or, to use James Patterson’s term, BookShots. But “James Patterson, Inc.” isn’t the only provider offering something to readers with limited time and short attention spans. The Libraries Transform Campaign recently wrote about short reading on their website, giving many examples of other short reads that are being delivered in print and digital formats.

How else does this “time-attention-focus” shortage affect our reading? Are fewer of us reading, period? Happily, it would seem not. The 2016 Pew Research Center survey on book reading provides a richly detailed series of answers. Among many interesting statistics, 73% of Americans say they have read at least one book in the last year. For 18 to 29 year-olds, that number is higher: 80%. Along with this, a 2014 article from The Atlantic reports:

Last year, the NEA found that 52 percent of 18-24 year-olds had read a book outside of work or school, the same as in the pre-Facebook days of 2002. If book culture were in terminal decline, this is the demographic where you’d expect it to be fading fastest.

So much for the misconception that young people don’t read.

In 2012, Pew conducted a survey to identify why people like to read. The theme of “quiet entertainment” was popular among respondents. Here are some individual quotes:

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What are some factors that tend to be a positive catalyst for reading? Nothing beats the age-old practice of a parent reading to their child. Adults who were read to as children tend to continue the practice of reading throughout their lives. Along with this, according to a Pew Research Center Study, education level and income both seem to influence reading. Those with college degrees read more than those without. Those in middle to upper-middle income brackets tend to read more than those with lower incomes.

We Americans pride ourselves on being highly educated and literate, but when we compare ourselves to the rest of the world, how do we as a country stack up in regard to reading? According to the NOP World Culture Score Index on hours of reading per week per person, India is #1, at 10 hours, 42 minutes per week. China is at eight hours, Russia and Sweden are at seven, and Canada, Germany, and the U.S. are about five hours,45 minutes each. Mexico is slightly below America, at five hours, 30 minutes. This suggests there is not a correlation in other countries between standard of living or education and reading.

shutterstock_450545746What librarians can do to foster reading is exactly what we have been doing: promoting reading through storytimes, publicizing summer reading programs, fostering book discussion groups, and promoting literacy by partnering with literacy organizations. Beyond that, we know every book a child is given makes him or her more likely to become a lifelong reader. We know that families who are well educated will be more enthusiastic readers, as well as users of libraries. We know that fostering efforts to raise families out of poverty will tend to move them more into the camp of those who love and find value in reading.

In our present hyped-up, frenetic world of doing, working, chatting, and surfing, perhaps our best stance as librarians is to take every opportunity to water the seeds of imagination in individuals. To be a catalyst for discovery, and to offer not so much a reflection of the culture, but rather a pathway to a life of the mind that offers rich rewards for personal and social development.

Is the librarian’s push to promote reading a kind of self-serving insurance policy to protect our livelihood? Perhaps, to some degree, it is. But more importantly, we understand the secret of reading. And this is what we seek to share.

Ultimately, we as librarians work not to save the institution, not to maintain the status quo, not to save “the book,” and not to act as luddites. The crux of the issue revolves around fostering “the good life.” We believe with all our hearts that reading is a magic elixir that takes us out of ourselves, broadens our perspectives, leads us to ask questions, and brings us into connection with the world around us.

Perhaps Neil Gaiman said it best:

“You’re also finding out something as you read [that is] vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this: the world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

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Paul

Nothing brings a smile to Paul Duckworth’s face quite like a good book, a long walk, and the unmatched beauty of country life. Click here for more.

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