Reading: A Canadian tragedy… or not?


World Reading Map
The map above might show the making of a serious tragedy for Western and especially Canadian culture. It indicates in colour which nations read the most. Yellow is the second lowest group. Canada is coloured yellow.

TV zombiesIn this survey, Canada ranks 10th – from the bottom! Twenty countries above us have populations which, on the average, read more per week than we do. That surprises and shocks me. And it disappoints me no end.

I’m not only a voracious reader, I’m passionate about books, language, reading and writing, and have been on the library board for 20 years actively helping it grow and develop. Is it a futile task?

I don’t believe so. In fact, I’ve seen the library grow more and more into a vital community resource in the past two decades. It has more users, more books and more reads than ever. That flies in the face of what the map suggests.

The map showed up on Facebook via Gizmodo, The stats come from the NOP World Culture Score (TM) Index (press release here). They’re scary – but are they accurate? They’re certainly not recent: the data were collected between December 2004 and February 2005.

Here are the 30 countries, ranked by the number of hours people there read every week:

  1. India — 10 hours, 42 minutes
  2. Thailand — 9:24
  3. China — 8:00
  4. Philippines — 7:36
  5. Egypt — 7:30
  6. Czech Republic — 7:24
  7. Russia — 7:06
  8. Sweden — 6:54
  9. France — 6:54
  10. Hungary — 6:48
  11. Saudi Arabia — 6:48
  12. Hong Kong — 6:42
  13. Poland — 6:30
  14. Venezuela — 6:24
  15. South Africa — 6:18
  16. Australia — 6:18
  17. Indonesia — 6:00
  18. Argentina — 5:54
  19. Turkey — 5:54
  20. Spain — 5:48
  21. Canada — 5:48
  22. Germany — 5:42
  23. USA — 5:42
  24. Italy — 5:36
  25. Mexico — 5:30
  26. U.K. — 5:18
  27. Brazil — 5:12
  28. Taiwan — 5:00
  29. Japan — 4:06
  30. Korea — 3:06

Canada is listed well below the global average of 6.5 hours a week. Five-point-four-eight hours translates into a mere 49 minutes a day, on average. Are we losing our minds to TV?

Maybe not. We’re lower than most surveyed nations in TV watching, too – a small blessing – but still, more than double the time is spent staring at a piece of furniture instead of cracking open a book:

  1. Thailand 22.4
  2. Philippines 21.0
  3. Egypt 20.9
  4. Turkey 20.2
  5. Indonesia 19.7
  6. USA 19.0
  7. Taiwan 18.9
  8. Brazil 18.4
  9. U.K. 18.0
  10. Japan 17.9
  11. Saudi Arabia 17.7
  12. France 17.3
  13. Hong Kong 16.7
  14. GLOBAL 16.6
  15. Czech Republic 16.2
  16. Poland 15.9
  17. Spain 15.9
  18. China 15.7
  19. Korea 15.4
  20. Germany 15.2
  21. Hungary 15.1
  22. Russia 15.0
  23. Italy 14.9
  24. South Africa 14.8
  25. Canada 14.7
  26. Argentina 14.0
  27. Australia 13.3
  28. India 13.3
  29. Sweden 12.3
  30. Venezuela 11.9
  31. Mexico 11.6

This figure of 14.7 hours per week is depressing enough. But it contradicts other sources which put the number much higher – more than double!

A 2013 survey by BBM pegged it at 30 hours a week. That’s an average of almost four-and-a-half hours a day. The CRTC report released in late 2013 said Canadians watch an average 28.2 hours of television a week. That’s almost five times the amount we spend reading. And that, my friends, is truly a depressing statistic.

Of course, the numbers don’t tell us the subject or the quality of the experience. Are some nations reading more bodice-ripper romances while others devour philosophy texts? Are others watching more science and history shows* than sitcoms on TV?

Is reading a graphic novel intellectually or culturally better than watching a documentary on TV? Is reading a thriller novel substantially better or more illuminating than watching it in movie form?

Yes and yes, I might argue, reading is always better – but mostly because different parts of the brain are exercised and stimulated when reading than when watching TV. Reading is mentally more stimulating, although not necessarily more entertaining. The content of one is not necessarily superior to the other, just the physiological and neurological processes.

What are people – what are Canadians – reading? Books? Magazines? Newspapers? Computer manuals? Recipes? Comic books? Ad flyers? Cereal boxes? The survey doesn’t say.

But content is important. It’s crucial to the discussion.

Then we get to the statistics about online/internet use. The CRTC says Anglo Canadians spend an average of 20.1 hours per week online, while Francophones spend 13 hours per week. (It gets a bit confusing if you try to add all these up because there’s some overlap – it seems people increasingly tweet and comment on FB when they’re watching TV). But the NOP survey says Canadians only use the internet outside of work for 8.3 hours. The CRTC doesn’t break down the hours into work/non-work time.

What’s the reason for the discrepancy? When you add the NOP numbers, you get Canadians spending 37.58 hours a week in these activities. Aside from some overlap between TV and online, they’re all activities done independently. When do we have time to cook, eat, commute, play with the kids, walk the dog, clean the kitty litter, vacuum…? The numbers just don’t add up very well for me.

And what are people doing online? Reading? Watching videos? Playing games? Learning Latin? Or surfing porn sites? The raw data for number of hours online is almost useless without some qualifying breakdown into content.

Isn’t it reasonable to add the number of hours spent reading online to the number of hours reading offline? If I read a newspaper in digital format, isn’t it equivalent to reading the print version? If I read an online article on, say, the Peloponnesian War, is that not the same as reading a chapter in a book on the same subject?

So are these figures relevant? Not really. Without a better explanation of what people are doing during these times, about the content of their experience, they are simply too vague.

What bothers me is not where we are on someone’s (possibly incorrect) scale, but rather that the content of the experience is not being considered, and yet the stats will be used as comparators anyway.

Spending 20.1 hours a week reading online journals, newspapers, articles, blogs and so on is very different that spending it watching videos or streaming TV and music, or playing games. Spending  hours reading cereal boxes is not the same as spending a fraction of that time reading a novel, or poetry, or history.

I think we need someone to give us better statistical breakdown before we start panicking over the stats. But regardless, we could still do with more reading in our lives and less TV.

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* If, of course, they can find them: at least in North America those TV channels supposedly about science and history have degraded into intellectual sludge pits of faux “reality” shows and pseudoscience claptrap, well below the intellectual level of a bodice-ripper. Yes, we have PBS and TVO and similar public broadcasters to give us actual and more importantly, factual content on TV. But is that what people are watching? None of the stats I’ve read suggest that. What I’ve read is that more sets are tuned into mindless dreck like Duck Dynasty than they are to NOVA. And in the process getting bombarded by several hours of ads, too.