Does anyone still read books?


Reading statisticsI came across an early version of this infographic on Facebook and it shook me to my core. You can see it here. The updated and corrected infographic is shown to the right. It is only marginally less distressing than the earlier one.

Unfortunately, the early one, although inaccurate and misleading, is still being shared. That early graphic is based on some disputed statistics and unfounded claims, but it’s worth examining to understand my reaction.

Reading is so central to my life that the notion that anyone would stop reading books simply gobsmacks me. I can barely go eight hours without reading one or more books, let alone years or even decades. That would be like a life sentence in solitary confinement.

Worse, think about the dangers an un-reading public presents to any democracy. How will people understand issues, how will they pick their leaders, how will they make their life choices if they don’t read. Television cannot educate them, especially not with our politicized media and its reduction of content to a few seconds of video and soundbites, set free from the mooring of context. And the internet has fragmented it even more. As Ray Bradbury said in 1993:

The problem in our country isn’t with books being banned, but with people no longer reading. Look at the magazines, the newspapers around us – it’s all junk, all trash, tidbits of news. The average TV ad has 120 images a minute. Everything just falls off your mind. … You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them. Ray Bradbury, 1993, interviewed by Misha Berson.

I have books stacked beside the bed, in our washrooms; I carry books with me in the car, in my shoulder bag, luggage, to conferences and conventions, large ones for the table, fat ones for the bed, small ones that can fit in my coat pocket…*

What a sad life non-readers live. I cannot imagine the intellectual poverty of someone who doesn’t read regularly and passionately. **

There are plenty of sites with statistics about reading online, few of which offer any uplifting news. But there are also far too many sites with dubious or unattributed figures. For example, on Statistics Brain I read that:

  • Total percent of U.S. high school graduates who will never read a book after high school: 33%
  • Total percentage of college students who will never read another book after they graduate: 42%

Scary, yes, but not true. What is the source of this data? Without a reference to the research, without the methodology, sample size, or source, this is meaningless. It becomes just more internet codswallop, tossed into the same intellectual wastebin as chemtrails and homeopathy. But this is the stuff people seem to share.

Pew Research – a generally reliable source – has quite different figures. According to their survey:

As of January 2014, some 76% of American adults ages 18 and older said that they read at least one book in the past year. Almost seven in ten adults (69%) read a book in print in the past 12 months, while 28% read an e-book, and 14% listened to an audiobook.

Well, that helps dispell the myth of the ignorant, uncultured American somewhat.

What I’d like to know is how many books they read and what sort. That phrase “at least one” gives me cause for alarm: how many respondents read ONLY one? One book in a year. That’s like driving along Highway 401 at 30 km/h. Eating one potato chip.

The International Publisher’s Organization published a report that stated:

…the second most popular cultural activity in Europe in 2012-13 was reading books — 68% of respondents said that they had read at least one book during the 12 months surveyed…

What was the first activity? And why are Europeans less well-read than even Americans? Booknet did a similar poll for Canadians in 2014:

88% of our respondents read a book last year.

Which is good, but how many books do people read in a year? I keep going back to that one-is-the-loneliest-number phrase. And what sort – fiction? Poetry? Textbooks? Software manuals? History? Religious texts? I want details.

Not all reading is the same. People who read the company’s mandatory handbook on widget repair as their one-book-a-year are not necessarily as passionate about reading as the person who read Moby Dick. I had a worker who only ever read The Bible (and pretty much only the New Testament). No fiction, no poetry, no science or history or politics. Just the Bible. She read it daily, but is that the same as reading Homer? Gilgamesh? John Irving? Charles Darwin? I don’t think so.

I think someone should ask respondents why they read. For work?Pleasure? School? Self-education? Church? Government? Status? There are a lot of reasons to read, some of them obligatory. I want to know who reads for themselves and why.

Booknet also found that people are watching TV more than reading – increasingly so over the previous three years. And by the next year, 2015, that 88% reading figure had dropped to 84%. So perhaps the number is diminishing. But who are they and what did they stop reading?

Interestingly, Booknet considers audio books as reading – measured the same as print or e-books, with which I personally don’t agree. Reading and listening are not the same skill (nonetheless, I like to listen to audio books when walking the dogs). The site notes:

Of those surveyed, 72% of Americans said they’d read a book in the past year, while 84% of Canadians said the same. When those who answered “yes” were broken down by age, we discovered that millennials across North America are doing a lot of reading. In both countries, those in the 18-29 age bracket make up the highest percentage of those who had read a book that year. While American reader numbers dip significantly in other age brackets, at least 80% of Canadians reported reading a book for all age brackets, except those aged 50-64—the age group with the lowest reader numbers in both countries.

Another item of note on Booknet:

In 2015, Canadians purchased 52.6 million books…

(I’m sure I accounted for a sizable slice of that. Okay, maybe that’s hyperbole, but I do buy a lot of books. I can think of few activities more pleasurable than to browse in a book store, perhaps aside from writing about books. I do my best to keep the statistics high… much to Susan’s dismay at times. But if everyone bought half as many books as I do, the publishing industry would be in a golden age.)

These reliable studies relieve me of my considerable anxiety about a tsunami of illiteracy sweeping us away (although concerns linger, as I’ve written in the past). That doesn’t mean we are safe from the growing scourge of ignorance, or that we can take literacy and reading for granted. We cannot. The Canadian Literacy and Learning Network warns:

42% of Canadian adults between the ages of 16 and 65 have low literacy skills.

Reading alone won’t fix that. Literacy is a complex issue that involves education, upbringing, culture, age, nationality, social status, genetics, physiology and more. But reading can help and it’s a helluva lot more powerful and brain-building than TV. What we need is to reinforce the culture of reading, to reiterate that it is a joy, not a chore.

Encouraging reading at a young age can help. Reading to and with children helps. Reading instead of watching TV or fiddling with your cell phone helps.

Read, dammit. Read at bedtime, Read in the john, in the waiting room, on the bus, over lunch. Take a book with you when you go out and open it at every opportunity. Use the library if you don’t want to own them. We need to get those numbers higher.


* I am always surprised when I sit in a waiting room – a doctor’s, or for car service, for example – and see people around me crane their heads to watch a TV screen instead of reading. Or fidget with their smart phone. Or just sit and stare. Why wouldn’t you bring a book or an e-reader, when you know you have to wait? Why wouldn’t you pick up one of the newspapers or magazines from the table?

** Well, aside from the members of The Block on our council who, for ideological reasons, are adamantly opposed to reading lest they pollute their minds with learning.

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