Where Have all the Readers Gone?


books, glorious booksNo, it’s not a remake of Pete Seeger’s famous 1955 anti-war song. That’s the title of an article that appeared in the Globe and Mail this week, by Peter Denton, lamenting our overall slide into image-based information with the “…intellectual attention span of squirrels…” *

It grabbed my attention from the headline, but I stand at odds over his conclusions and his figures.

Denton worries that people are reading less and sliding towards “personal illiteracy”:

It’s not that e-books are taking over, either. People hardly buy books any more. Even fewer read them. My e-book sales are almost non-existent and I am told this is a common complaint. Canada’s one large book retailing chain stocks as much other stuff as it does books and displays it much more prominently.
Simply put, we are no longer a country of readers – at least not of more than 1,000 words in a row. Anything longer is skipped over like those Internet terms of service agreements, jumping to the agree button at the end.

Now I realize I am not your typical reader, and may be the exception to the rule, but I think my generation is, on average, both very well-read and continues to read a significant amount. My parents were avid readers and they shared their love of books with me. But more than that, for me a good time is an hour or two simply browsing in a bookstore or library. Hell, even wandering through my own personal library is a delight because I always find something to pull off a shelf and look through.

“People hardly buy books any more”? I have yet to make a visit to Chapters or Indigo and not find the store – regardless of which one – crowded and busy with shoppers. Book buyers, not shopping for the houseware claptrap that seems to have taken over large sections of this chain.

And the few used book stores I haunt seem well-attended, too. One I visit in Toronto has late hours and at 8 or 9 p.m. (I’ve stopped by a few times at late hours on the way back from a meal or meeting) I’ve found a dozen or more shoppers in it. I’ve been ushered out of a downtown Chapters in Ottawa at 10 p.m. when it closed, along with many other recalcitrant browsers.

Worse, at least for my personal finances, I often think I keep several online booksellers afloat (particularly some used book sellers).

I usually get between one and four books by mail every week. This week it was Alice in Wonderland Decoded and the Wormsley abridgment of Decline and Fall. Last week it was a couple of books on typography and a fantasy novel. Plus I also bought a half-dozen books from the two used book stores in town and six at Chapters when I visited last weekend.

More to the point: if no one is buying books, why are so many being published? More books are being published now than ever before. Surely publishers aren’t all hell-bent on losing money?

According to the 2012 global publishing market report, the net value of the top 20 publishing markets was 95.6 billion Euros. By 2014, its next report stated:

Book publishing is a sector of growth –at least when it comes to emerging economies. In countries like Brazil, China, Korea, Mexico or Turkey, books, as both learning and entertainment, are finding an expanding audience among the new global middle classes…
With an estimated value, at customer prices, of ca. US$ 151 bn, book publishing is the largest of the publishing and entertainment industries.

The Ontario government estimates the Canadian publishing industry as fairly healthy and Ontario’s own sector is doing reasonably well, too:

Book publishing in Canada is a $1.9 billion industry, with nearly two-thirds of revenues generated in Ontario…
Ontario-based, Canadian-owned book publishers spent slightly over $263.7 million in operating expenditures in 2011. Just over $116.8 million, or 44%, was spent in Ontario. They also spent an estimated $73.6 million on wages and benefits in 2011, and $58.8 million of this was spent in Ontario.

So clearly, Denton lives in a different world than I. Book publishing is strong in mine. For which I am eternally grateful.

There were two negative impacts on publishing in the past decade – one was the 2008 recession, but that hurt everyone, not just publishing. The second was the surge in e-reader sales until 2012, after which they fell. Even though that market has slowed, it is still very healthy, mind you – and a Fortune article disputes some of the numbers.

But don’t be misled into nit-picking: e-readers and printed books are both for reading. It’s the combined growth that matters. The market trend for readable material is climbing, not dropping, regardless of which medium is rising or falling. One thousand words on my Kindle is still 1,00 words read.

Amazon often gets demonized, but it has also made available a wider selection of books and publications that one can expect to find in a local bookstore.  I tend to read a lot of non-fiction in specialized areas one would seldom encounter on the typical shelf (and never in e-books). But printed copies can be found on Amazon and other online sellers. Of course, the biggest problem is buying sight-unseen. I like to hold a book, read the back or jacket, read the first few lines, check the binding, look for an index or bibliography… can’t do that online.

Still, I buy anyway, and sales figures suggest a lot of others do, too. Amazon’s revenue from book sales in 2013 (?) was $5.25 billion, according to this Fortune article. That’s about 7% of Amazon’s total revenue, by the way.

As for not reading, “..more than 1,000 words in a row,” you, dear reader, prove the opposite, since if you follow my writing, you know I seldom write less than that number in any post.

I myself managed to read 61 pages of a book while waiting for my car in Toyota’s waiting room this week. I read half that much more last night in bed (I can’t imagine having a TV set in the bedroom when one has access to books… it just seems so crass…)

How many words is that? Depends on the page and font size. A typical paperback book has 250-300 words per page. Large format paperbacks and hardcovers have more. A letter-sized page printed in 11-point type has about 500. (If you’ve read this far, you’ve already passed the 1,100-word milestone: congratulations).

But I do share Denton’s concerns about literacy. It’s always been an uphill battle against other technologies; film, then radio, then TV then the internet all have clamoured for attention over publications. And for the most part, they have won.

Denton writes,

Literacy – reading books and writing – is at the centre of this passion for education. Yet, here at home, our literacy indicators continue to slide. Manitoba sits close to the bottom of the national average and fingers are thus happily pointed at our teachers and our education system.

As a mostly auto-didact, I would agree with that first statement. I am as passionate about learning as I am about reading. But I have yet to find documentation for his second statement. National literacy – or rather, illiteracy – seems to be a fairly stable figure, even if not an uplifting one.

The Canadian Literacy and Learning Network notes some sad, disturbing figures:

42% of Canadian adults between the ages of 16 and 65 have low literacy skills.
55% of working age adults in Canada are estimated to have less than adequate health literacy skills. Shockingly, 88% of adults over the age of 65 appear to be in this situation.

But to be fair, literacy is not easy to define. Does it mean the ability to read Shakespeare and Tolstoy? To compose office memos? Or simply not get lost in a subway system? Is someone illiterate just because he or she can’t always follow the damned instructions for an Ikea cabinet?

A more recent study from Stats Canada offers four different levels of literacy to consider: prose, document, numeracy and problem solving, then ranks each in up to five levels.**

A comparison against other nations (p.37-38) shows Canadians score somewhat better in some areas (prose and document), lower in others, but overall is about in the middle of the pack of 10 comparators. The report calls Canada’s numbers “average” (p. 306). So I don’t think we need to despair quite yet.

However, the report has equally disturbing conclusions (p. 307):

In all participating countries a large proportion of adults perform poorly in at least one of the skill domains assessed. Even in the best performing countries (the Netherlands and Norway), low performance in at least one skill domain is the reality for over half of the adult population.

I think what is most pointed is the statement (p. 305):

Much of the differences in the level and distribution of proficiency can be explained by social background, educational attainment and a range of variables relating to use of and engagement with literacy and numeracy and the ways adults lead their lives.

In other words, literacy is a lifestyle issue and often a choice. You can choose to read or watch TV, choose to read or play games, choose to read or play sports. Not that doing any of them is bad, but perhaps a better balance is necessary to boost the literacy levels. It’s not like anyone’s TV-watching skills need honing. So give up the TV for an hour a day and read instead.

Prove Peter Denton wrong: read. Set a goal of more than 1,000 words a day. Give our national literacy level a boost.

* Apparently people in Denton’s region have a longer attention span than the rest of us, which, according to studies, is about eight seconds, or less than that of a goldfish. Oh, how we long for the days when we were more squirrel-like!

** If you want to read a report that does its surveys properly and provides the methodological support, read this one, especially the appendices – it blows away those simplistic, unscientific internet surveys. It should be used as a model for all types of survey and statistical reporting.

PS. If you’ve read this through, dear reader, you have surpassed 1,700 words. Give yourself a pat on the back.

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