This is sad.
I don’t know if that’s sad. I spend many hours a day reading (mostly for school) and I read for pleasure every day. That is, I read blogs like Feministe for pleasure. I think reading about current events and opinions is a more important use for reading than fiction. That is, of course, my own opinion, but still I think we need to redefine “reading for pleasure”.
I blame Britney. Oh wait, does Us Weekly count as reading? Because then those figures are waaay wrong.
Yeah… the full article, though, says that young Americans don’t really read anything, ever.
I’m saddened, but not surprised. When I was in grade school I used to have at least four books (for pleasure reading) in my backpack at any time – I’d go through about two bags a year because the straps would snap from the weight. Now I’m lucky if I’ve got 10 minutes on the weekend to curl up and read a chapter.
TMI: I’d never get to read anything now if I hadn’t started keeping some novels in the bathroom. /TMI
It’s terribly sad. My 67 yr old father has never read a book in my lifetime and is proud of it. If it’s not his local newspaper, Outdoor Life, Sports Illustrated or a porn mag, it is a waste of paper in his opinion. He’s convinced that I have had glasses since I was 6 because I started reading at the age of 4 and read non-stop. Supposedly I “burned my eyes out”- the dumb shit actually had me convinced as a kid that I would be blind by age 15!
In my household, we read constantly; house is littered with books. With all of the kids, my research and my husband’s gazillion interests, I’d say we have probably the better part of 5-7k books. Hell, that’s probably low.
I agree, it is terribly sad. It’s not that I think other forms of media are intrinsically bad, but I do think there’s something important about reading books, turning your attention to something that takes more sustained attention and thought than a newspaper article or movie.
I agree, they need to clarify if they mean physical books. I would imagine if they included electronic versions of texts, the number would go up. And I find this surprising, given the number of younger people I see reading on the daily bus commutes. Sure, they have their iPods on, but they’re also reading. And what about the inclusion of audio/podcast books?
How do people pass time while waiting if they don’t have books?
From what I’ve seen, zoning out to multimedia on their mp3 players and PSPs. I will confess I am guilty of that myself though a part of that is that I have a hard time reading anything in excessively noisy places such as waiting in line.
As I mentioned on Pandagon, this confirms my observations of classmates and co-workers from junior high to the present. Unlike my parents generation, most American adolescents and young adults regard reading as a chore to be endured, not a pastime to be enjoyed. I found it somewhat disquieting that I was one of a few people in my generation (Gen X) or younger who actually enjoys reading both for work and pleasure. In many circles, this love of reading is considered a sign one is a freak. I will admit that a part of my love of reading comes from my Chinese-American family’s emphasis on intellectual pursuits such as reading.
Moreover, the increasing time crunch faced by over-scheduled adolescents and young adults coupled with the increasing proliferation of other pastime options such as mindless television and computer/video games (Especially many first-person shooters) means that reading is no longer considered a pleasurable leisurely pastime by most younger Americans.
Cell phone games, music players, or any number of other little handheld devices, which are becoming more and more common for people in all walks of life. I don’t see as many people reading books on the subway as I did ten years ago, but the number of people playing Bejeweled has definitely gone up.
Although the study says in a couple places that it does cover electronic reading as well, there are a number of weird contradictions to that in the paper, and a lot of the questions are specifically about “reading books for entertainment.” I think books can be a valuable source of entertainment, but what concerns me the most in the paper is actually the declining rates of literacy, which shows that skill at reading is dropping. The worst effect of this, if you ask me, is not that a less literate population is going to have a worse time in the job market, as the study argues (kind of circular, no?) but that the level of public discourse is going to have to settle to a lower common denominator. Some people might find that a good thing — I think it was Einstein who said that if you can’t explain an idea simply, you don’t really understand it — but I think there’s also value in more nuanced or complex discourse that hashes out an idea that’s not well-understood. It’s detrimental to democracy for that kind of thing to go on only in the elites — but maybe that’s how it always has been, with the exception of a few statistical and historical blips.
The question remaining in my mind is — if people read less for pleasure, does that mean they are necessarily going to be less capable of reading when it’s important? And what exactly is going on with usage of online media, which kind of rest on a “backbone” of text regardless of how many embedded videos are around? (The paper kind of admits in one section that they don’t totally understand the role of blogs, and I suspect that a lot of “online reading for pleasure” wasn’t counted as reading.) I would hope that even if our culture somehow drifts past the ideal of literature as a form of art and entertainment accessible to everyone, the written word can still persist as a useful form of media.
I have been kind of wondering for a while if the exaltation of the book as the “best” or “most educational” form of entertainment media is really just a fancy of the intellectual elite, rooted in a long history where only the elites have been literate or able to afford libraries, and excepted only by the last 100-150 years (a fad in the grand scale of history) of reading being popularized, public libraries, etc. Maybe static, visual markings to represent words is just not the most natural or easiest entertainment medium for humans, even if it is really good for some things? Even Harry Potter was seemingly unable to reverse this trend, and I suspect that’s because it was mostly certain kinds of families buying their kids Harry Potter books.
This is going to sound like I’m anti-book or something, which I’m not, but when I try to find some silver lining to this problem, it’s that other media have been slowly getting smarter. The structure and language and storytelling complexity of popular television and film has been evolving for decades now, and the same has been true of video games and even comic books — both of which are further behind, and still stuck in an unfortunate (but not inevitable) rut of violent / power-fantasy subject matter. Books will be books, and I hope there will always be reading, and I think there are some things that reading does better than any other medium. But I hope we can also invest energy and thought towards enriching these other media, whose historical era to really be at their most useful, expressive, and enlightening may still be on the horizon. Can you imagine how good television news actually could be? How educational a video game could be, or what kind of game you’d want a kid to get absorbed in that “takes more sustained attention and thought than a newspaper article or movie” as Betsy says? I think it’s possible, and probably desirable since it may not be smart to pin too many hopes on the future of reading.
KQED’s Forum did a podcast on this subject a few weeks ago. It is indeed sad. For those who are interested, the podcast is here:
Er, that should be “did a show,” not “did a podcast.”
That is indeed a sad figure, as a first grade teacher in training it makes one all the more resolute to do their job properly. Also, it would be interesting to see the statistics for 2007, since Bush claims his NCLB has worked so well
The survey does not, in fact, say “Americans Don’t Read”. It is about the decline in “literary reading”, defined as “novels, short stories, plays or poems”. Not about reading, period. Not about reading non-fiction books, or magazines, or reading blogs.
So American youth are less likely to read a John Grisham novel or the latest Gossip Girls because they’re spending more time reading blogs? Is this supposed to make me sad?
The study itself is here:
It doesn’t surprise me. Most Americans are meatheads. What do you expect them to do? Build a library in their home?
I have been kind of wondering for a while if the exaltation of the book as the “best” or “most educational” form of entertainment media is really just a fancy of the intellectual elite, rooted in a long history where only the elites have been literate or able to afford libraries, and excepted only by the last 100-150 years (a fad in the grand scale of history) of reading being popularized, public libraries, etc. Maybe static, visual markings to represent words is just not the most natural or easiest entertainment medium for humans, even if it is really good for some things?
Though your point is well taken that this exaltation may be a fancy of the intellectual elite in part, reading books does require a more active mental engagement with the written word that could rarely be matched by most passive multimedia such as mindless television or computer/video games. One of the benefits of this engagement is the development and strengthening of critical thinking and reasoning skills which come in handy in evaluating a wide variety of ideas and arguments bandied about in our society. If passive multimedia supplants books as sources for information and entertainment, I fear the general level of critical thinking and reasoning skills would decline among the general populace. When this happens, the ruling elite of our society would have an even easier time manipulating our society’s populace than they current have.
Reading also provides one effective means of learning effective written communication skills. Though I will admit my own writing is barely passable, it is a big improvement over what I wrote when my access to a wide variety of different readings was limited as an elementary and junior high school student. This lack of reading among most Americans is probably one reason why I’ve witnessed too many native-born undergraduates, grad students, and co-workers whose written English was far worse than my parents’ during their first few years in the states.
Area Eccentric Reads Entire Book
Progressive ideas suffer from a simplified discourse. Slogans work best when they’re appealing to already-existing constructs, but progressives have to do the hard work of getting people to see things in a new light, to think creatively about improving our world. That requires a need to get complex, and that is why the decline in reading is an issue.
But video games and TV aren’t bad things, by any stretch. They’re just different, and cultivate different but important skills.
Slogans work best when they’re appealing to already-existing constructs, but progressives have to do the hard work of getting people to see things in a new light, to think creatively about improving our world. That requires a need to get complex, and that is why the decline in reading is an issue.
But the issue is not that people aren’t reading, it’s that the reading police believe that people aren’t reading “literature” — and the study itself considers literature alone as “novels, short stories, plays, or poetry.”
If I pick up Naomi Klein in lieu of Toni Morrison, I’m still reading.
Also, a study with these results is released every five years or so to the same public disdain. It’s ridiculous to posit that reading non-fiction of any medium is somehow lesser than reading literature, even for those of us who love fiction.
I have been kind of wondering for a while if the exaltation of the book as the “best” or “most educational” form of entertainment media is really just a fancy of the intellectual elite, rooted in a long history where only the elites have been literate or able to afford libraries, and excepted only by the last 100-150 years (a fad in the grand scale of history) of reading being popularized, public libraries, etc.
Er, Neil Postman _The Disappearance of Childhood_.
I’ve read 15 books this year, but then, I’m not young. I’m also not employed.
I’m currently in library school (yes, you go to school for that) and people get wound up on a daily basis about the lack of reading culture in our society. Maybe I should get more wound up than I do . . . maybe it’s the historian side of me. I mean, people have been predicting the demise of print culture since the radio was invented over 100 years ago, and so far the publishing industry has ballooned, not diminished.
The young people I know are smart, thoughtful, and engaged with the world–not necessarily through printed books, no, but there are many other forms of complex communication (starting with the most basic, oral . . .).
So I don’t get all het up about these statistics too much. Except, of course, that it makes me a freak . But then, I knew that already.
…reading books does require a more active mental engagement with the written word that could rarely be matched by most passive multimedia such as mindless television or computer/video games.
Exholt, you’ll have to explain what you mean by “passive multimedia” since there’s no game I can think of that could possibly fit under any definition of passive media that I can think of. Games are interactive by defintion — they require a player to manipulate and make decisions to alter their state, usually over and over. In this sense, books are more passive than games, although in another sense both require active participation in terms of interpretation. But in that sense, all media are “active” as long as the content is not mindless, and mindless content can be found in any medium. Although I’m familiar with the argument that reading words on a page somehow involves more active cogitation than watching film images on a screen… I’m not sure this has ever been proven. Not all reading automatically requires the reader to imagine a visual scene, and not all film leaves everything laid bare with no imagination required, for instance. Do books really have more “gaps” for the reader to act than films? I’d say it depends on the work. And as for games — they cannot even be created without these kinds of gaps, or experienced without inserting yourself into them and participating. They are inherently participatory media, even if many examples of games are pretty brainless; all this signifies is a lot of untapped potential.
I agree with Amanda’s assessment that different media are good for teaching different things, and will add two corollaries:
1) We don’t know what newer media are good at yet, because they have been used mostly for “mindless” entertainment and light storytelling. Comic books and video games are good examples of media which could have huge potential, but which have mostly been limited to certain kinds of “dumbed down” content and messages until relatively recently. In the last five decades we’ve started to get an idea of the power of film. Who knows — maybe these media (including the internet, which is largely verbal) are good at a whole lot of things that have not been sufficiently explored or even tested very much. The great artistic works (even the great “Birth of a Nation” or “Don Quixote”) of certain media have yet to be created.
2) When the kids being born today are grown up, they’re going to need a radically different set of media literacy skills than we use right now. I think there are larger forces at work here than just “not enough parents are encouraging their kids to read” (phoenician points to one analysis) and I really do believe that kids need to be trained to know how to read TV journalism, advertising, how to learn from video games, how narrative works in film, just as much as they need to learn how to read poetry. Maybe moreso, since poetry is a beautiful medium, but I’m not as worried about it lying to them as much and I’ve never learned much from a poem besides the strong expression of a poet’s feelings or something about poetry or art itself. (My poetry teacher friend would kick me in the head if he read me writing this…)
The MacArthur Foundation is currently funding a five-year, $50 million series of grants into digital learning and literacy to pursue some of these issues. Fair disclosure — my company split one of these grants with the University of Wisconsin, and the results of our work are going to be in public beta shortly.
One of the benefits of this engagement is the development and strengthening of critical thinking and reasoning skills which come in handy in evaluating a wide variety of ideas and arguments bandied about in our society. If passive multimedia supplants books as sources for information and entertainment, I fear the general level of critical thinking and reasoning skills would decline among the general populace.
I’ve already posted my thoughts about the problems with dropping levels of literacy, and I think it would have a deleterious effect on discourse about say, important political issues. Most of all, it would mean that this discourse would be limited to an even smaller elite than it already is. For back-and-forth communication about a subject in a public arena, the written word is hard to beat. It has more fixity and asynchronicity than the spoken word, is rapid to produce, and can function many-to-many (like we are doing right now).
However, all of this is different than “developing critical thinking and reasoning skills.” There’s quite a bit of research now suggesting that games of the right kind may be just as good or better, since they not only impart information but also require that the player understand how to use and act on the information in a systematic way. There are papers about this, but I think some good examples are discussed in this New York Times article. Significant quote about PeaceMaker, a game about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
But people get very engaged. They really try very hard to get a solution. Even after one hour or two hours, they’d come to me and say, you know, I know more about the conflict than when I’ve read newspapers for 10 years.
Again, none of this is meant to imply that reading vanishing would be a “good thing.” It’s just that if it’s inevitable, or even seems like there might be a danger, we need to make sure all our eggs are not in one basket — not when there are some other perfectly good, underutilized baskets that people have been incorrectly assuming are “junk entertainment” for decades.
More background material:
Ian Bogost of Water Cooler Games talks about games that educate about politics, such as Oil World, which according to him is “a game about the global politics of oil, showing that the relationship between gas prices at the pump and the way the oil industry works is quite complex.” I don’t think his games are always successful at systematically conveying the intended messages or information, and some of them aren’t even good at being games, but I’m very glad he’s doing this kind of work when we’re still in the “silent movies” age of this kind of thing. I might try to review his latest game “FATWORLD” soon, since ostensibly it’s not about trying to dictate what people eat, but it seems like it has a serious propensity to repeat myths and stereotypes about fat… but hey, just because a medium has potential for certain kinds of communication and learning doesn’t mean everyone’s going to agree about what to say or teach.
Lauren is correct – and somebody at my blog already pointed out that I referred to the NEA’s 2002 report, not the 2007 report that was just released. The new report, “To Read or Not To Read,” can be accessed from this page (the report itself is a big-ass PDF).
Just like in the previous report, the NEA is not very clear about what they mean by “reading”. When they say teens are reading nothing at all for pleasure, do they mean not reading a book, as in the previous table? No ‘literary’ (i.e. non-fiction books)? They keep switching back and forth in their report and depending on what group they’re talking about. (Does “using other media while reading” mean listening to music? OMFG, somebody tell the bookstores to quit with the classical background music!)
The real issue of concern, assuming the NEA didn’t boff this one either, is a decline in reading proficiency–which I would bet money is tied to the same decline in minority education that the professional antifeminists try to repackage as some kind of war against boys.
This just in: NEA study finds that Americans are dumb and uncultured.
Boy, there’s a shocker.
Yeah, I can’t help but wonder if this was done simply so ppl could say “well, duh!”
And as for games — they cannot even be created without these kinds of gaps, or experienced without inserting yourself into them and participating.
I’ll admit to being heavily biased here, but I see a huge amount of meta, fanfiction, and other written discussion surrounding video games.
I’m not saying reading Final Fantasy fanfiction is as important as reading great literature, but it’s reading, and it involves thinking about people and concepts. And though the grammar and spelling may be worse than published light fiction I don’t know that it always makes the reader think any less.
The point could be made that the people doing that are the same people who are out there reading books, that could be true, but I’m still reluctant overall to name video games as part of the problem.
I probably shouldn’t even bring up fanfiction as it often seems to set off bells of “stupid” for some people, but it exists and people read it.
I have a lot of people to blame, but Britney is not one of them. And yes, Hops, magazines such as Vogue and Playboy do count as reading material (yes, some of us actually read the articles in Playboy instead of drooling over the pics).
Outside of weblogs, CD sleeves and news online, I haven’t read anything since 2006.
High school English teachers turned me off to reading for years. Well, for fiction, at least.
And I never really got turned back on. I read more for disdain and mockery than anything, knowing full well that the book I’m writing detonates the no-shit-sherlockities I had to trudge through back in high school/college.
Too many books suck. Our absurd world is much more interesting, anyway.
I never read books anymore now that I’m in college. Every time I want to pick up a book to read, I feel pangs of guilt because I SHOULD be reading my textbooks instead.
That said, I read a lot of blogs.
Seconding the fanfiction thing. Even if 99% of it is grammar-cringing droll written by 14-year olds, it does demonstrate that not only people are actively engaged the media they are consuming, they feel that they SHOULD be engaged and form their own opinions about characters and plot elements, twist those around and share them with others to critique and further discuss. This is very different from simply passively reading a book or watching a TV show, then shutting the book or turning off the TV and ending it right there.
I read a lot of fanfiction and, yes, you have to wade through a lot of crap to get to the good stuff, but I’ve found fanfic I would consider head-and-shoulders above professionally published work, that introduce and demonstrate very interest ideas and interpretations of the original canon.
And video games not involving any reading or reading of considerable length? Ha! Try playing a Phoenix Wright game. Enough words there for a short novel.
An additional flaw with the study is that they specify reading a text source. How many people are now consuming at least two audio books a month?
When the NEA starts panicking because the readers are the ones who visit museums and volunteer and attend cultural events, they are missing the point that a declining economy and dwindling middle class means fewer people have the luxury of free time those activities imply.
It’s a crap study, and it’s always a crap study, every time they send out their press release.
Just like in the previous report, the NEA is not very clear about what they mean by “reading”. When they say teens are reading nothing at all for pleasure, do they mean not reading a book, as in the previous table? No ‘literary’ (i.e. non-fiction books)?
The study says:
Unless “book-reading” is specifically mentioned, study
results on voluntary reading should be taken as referencing all varieties of leisure
reading (e.g., magazines, newspapers, online reading), and not books alone.
So when the study says that 50% of high school seniors and nearly 65% of college seniors spend less than one hour a week reading for pleasure, that doesn’t mean just books or literature, that means at all.
roses, look at the chart Jill linked to.
They also mix up different kinds of reading throughout the report: sometimes they talk about ‘leisure reading’, sometimes about reading books, sometimes about ‘literary reading’.
The real question is literacy, and whether people read outside of when they’re forced to. That’s not what this study is about; it’s a press release about how the NEA needs more help in fulfilling its mission. It’s no different than the USDA issuing a report sounding the alarm that Americans aren’t getting enough to eat because beef consumption is down.
I don’t think that is a fair study in the least. I read ALL the time, but for school. In grad school in the humanities, reading is something like breathing to my everyday existence. That said, I don’t read so much for fun on the side, because I am already reading so much I hardly have time and I enjoy what I do. Big surprise, reading may be required for my career path but I am IN my career path in the first place because I enjoy reading.
Secondly, what do they count as reading? I don’t care for fiction because I feel most of what I have read does not speak to me as much as my academic sources or of course feminist blogs such as this one. I think this study is just another bs way to claim that current generations are apathetic and lazy. I’m sorry, but most everyone I know in the age group underlined is VERY aware of world events, politics, etc.
I also wanted to add I agree with what several people have been pointing out, that the study doesn’t address online reading such as blogs or fan fiction. I would say young people may be less interested in traditional fiction because in part of our access to online entertainment. Fan fiction may be more up to date and more relevant to individual’s interests. I read blogs because I find current events (not from dumbed down mass media sources) far more relevant to my life than many fictional books I have read. I also think the point about less leisure time may be an important factor. It is like a study looking at how sad it is that people have stopped watching so many VHSs when DVDs have been the major means to view films for a number of years.
For a lot of people it’s a time issue.
College students have studying to do.
Working folk have work and commute and second-shift.
And those of us with second jobs have even less time.
A lot of people I know almost never read commercial fiction when they can get fanfic.
The biggest group of readers I’ve encountered lately: truck drivers.
They are required by law to spend 10 hours in the sleeper berth of the truck.
No one wants to sleep all 10. So a lot of them read.
Completely agree with those who suspect that the study did not cover the increase in reading related to social networking, blogging, etc., as well as reading incidental to playing video games, etc. My oldest son (17) learned to read from comic books, because that was what he enjoyed. He has the attention spand of a gnat, and very much enjoys the sort of O Henry length on-line jokes and emails that get passed around everywhere.
My youngest son (10) is much more of a reader than his brother, usually carrying one or two large books around with him, but he also spends an enormous amount of time playing video games and reading magazines. He learned to read by watching mom and dad play FFVI. He has read through 5.5 of 7 Harry Potter books so far, the Hobbit, To Kill a Mockingbird, and is currently reading Journey to the Center of the Earth. Granted, he’s a kid surrounded by books, but he doesn’t appear to be an anomaly at his school.
I suspect that the type of pleasure reading has shifted, rather than the amount. I read blogs for literally hours a day, but read books for only an hour or so most days anymore. Some of that is because I can read blogs at my desk when I’m supposed to be working.
To borrow a phrase from Pandagon here, this appears to be a “sign of the non-apocalypse”
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