The Death of Reading?

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Godzilla only read one book last year!There are days when I despair for humanity’s future. Many days, of late, it seems, and they seem to get more frequent as I read the news. I recently read an article online that confirms my belief we’re all doomed by the accelerating stupidity that seems to be consuming the planet.* It makes me want to go back to bed, pull the covers over my head, and hibernate from the rest of the world while it destroys itself with self-propelled ignorance. And reading is connected to that collapse.

This week it was a recent story from Nathan Bransford on his US-based book publishing site with the headline, “46% of Americans didn’t read a book in 2023.” That is deeply, deeply depressing for anyone who values reading. Read that again: almost half of Americans didn’t read a SINGLE book in 2023. Not one.

It explains a lot: the rise of Trump, his low-IQ insurrectionists, the rise of rightwing fascism among his followers, creationists, the growing anti-medicine and anti-science swell, pseudoscience conspiracies and suspicion of experts, anti-gluten and anti-GMO fads. All of which probably would be considerably smaller in scope and following if those people actually read books and didn’t get their ideas and ideology from YouTube conspiracies or far-right disinformation sources like qAnon and Fox Newz.

The data comes from YouGov pollster David Montgomery**, whose own article about the survey has a slightly more optimistic headline: “54% of Americans read a book this year.” As if barely half of respondents reading is somehow a cause for celebration instead of weeping. He wrote:

Just over half of all Americans said they read at least one book in 2023. Most of them read just a few books this year: 82% of Americans read 10 or fewer books… If you read or listened to only one book in 2023, then you read more than 46% of Americans. Reading five books puts you ahead of two-thirds of U.S. adult citizens. Readers of 10 books are in the 79th percentile, while Americans who read 20 or more books read more than 88% of their peers.

Rather surprisingly it wasn’t just the Repugnicans, Talibangelists, and MAGA-hatters who don’t read, despite their deeply ingrained belief that ignorance is not only bliss but should be mandatory, and their collective delight in book banning and burning.*** Democrats, as might be expected, read more, but not that much more. In an interview with the Washington Post, Montgomery said,

“Political identity does not appear to be strongly correlated with reading habits, at least not compared to other variables such as age and education.”

In another YouGov survey, Montgomery asked how many books Americans owned. Nine percent said they didn’t own any books at all. None! Almost a tenth of the respondents didn’t own one single book. Not. One. Book. That almost makes me weep. The average US home has three TV sets and the average adult spends more than three hours a day watching TV. But 9% don’t own even one book!

How can people not own books? How can a thinking person in the 21st century not own even one? It’s almost inhuman not to have any. It speaks volumes about what they might offer their kids, too, as education (why do I assume people who have no books are more likely to homeschool to perpetuate their ignorance?)

One in five Americans (20%) say they own between one and 10 physical books, while 14% own between 11 and 25 books, and 13% between 26 and 50. Overall, counting the 9% who say they own no physical books, at least 69% of Americans own no more than 100 books (6% are unsure how many they own). Another 25% own at least 100 books, including 4% who own between 500 and 1,000 books, and 3% who own more than 1,000 volumes. (The wording of the poll allowed for some overlaps on round numbers, such as choices between owning “100 – 200 books” and “200 – 500” books.)

I’ll admit I might answer in the “not sure how many” category but only because they don’t have a category beyond “more than 1,000.” Yes, I admit I am an outlier with a somewhat obsessive attitude towards books and reading, but I wouldn’t even know how to talk to someone who didn’t own a single book. In monosyllables, probably. With many gestures and pointing. Show them pictures if I have any. The conversation would be very limited. Lots of nods and grunts, I expect. Me Tarzan, you Jane sort-of chit chat.

A full 46% of Americans did not finish a book last year and 5% more read just one, so if you read two books you’re in the top half of American readers. If you read more than fifty, congrats you’re a book one per-center! Meanwhile, 42% read on paper, 22% digital, and 19% audiobooks, with e-books attracting the heaviest readers.

In Canada we’re better but not hugely so, despite our frequent claims to be smarter than Americans (PoiLIEvre followers prove we’re not). Booknet publishes an annual report titled the Canadian Leisure & Reading Study. On page 7, the 2022 report (published in 2023) noted how Canadians spent their leisure time with their activities at least once a week:

  1. Watching videos/TV/movies (90%)
  2. Cooking (86%)
  3. Listening to music (85%)
  4. Browsing social media/web (84%)
  5. Spending time with family (71%)
  6. Shopping (68%)
  7. Exercising/working out (63%)
  8. Listening to radio shows (50%)
  9. Reading or listening to books (49%)
  10. Playing video games (44%)

As a daily activity, reading books climbs marginally to eighth place: Reading or listening to books (31%). But never comes close to watching the TV. Cooking I’m not sure is as much as leisure activity as a necessity, as is a lot of shopping. Video games… well, okay I do that, too.

Overall, 78% of Canadians chose to use at least some of their leisure time in the last year reading or listening to a book. Just under half did some reading or listening to a book at least once a week (49%) and just under a third did so daily (31%).

That doesn’t say how much or how often Canadians read books until page 11, which notes,

Half of the readers we surveyed read or listened to between 1 and 5 books in 2022 (50%). Over a quarter read or listened to 6-11 books (28%), 16% read or listened to between 6 and 11 books, and 6% of respondents were heavy readers and read or listened to 50 or more books last year.

I’m not comfortable lumping reading and listening into a single category because they have different neurological processes and effects.**** To me, that’s illogical, like conflating bicycle riding and driving in a transportation study (although a 2019 story in Discover Magazine suggests our brains respond to the story in both formats in a similar manner… still it muddies the statistics to combine them). But I was somewhat mollified to read on page 12:

Readers 65 and over were most likely to have read 12 or more books in 2022 than other demographics. Our youngest demographic, those aged 18 to 29 were most likely to have read 6 to 11 books in 2022.

Some booksHowever, while 40% of their respondents read daily, only 24% read a book weekly, and 15% read once a month. Then we learn a full 21% read a book “less than once a month.” That is another scary statistic. Imagine deliberately and voluntarily not reading a book even as infrequently as once a month. Even prisoners are allowed to read more often.

I fit into their demographic group of readers aged 65 and over, who were “the most likely to read daily (53%)” which isn’t surprising when you don’t have to tend to children or go to work.*****

On page 24, it notes “30% of readers… did not pay for any books in 2022.” Another sad bit of datum. My book-buying habits are much reduced since I retired and my disposable income dwindled, but not to have bought a single book within a year is incomprehensible to me. Sure, new books are becoming more expensive, but are there no used-book stores nearby to purchase from? Maybe they’re all reading free e-books, but from what I read in the report, I suspect not. I suspect they’re not reading at all.

Worldwide, there are a few sporadic statistics. The Happy Guy Writing Services published a 2023 study of a mere 945 readers worldwide that showed 4% read no books at all, but there was some better news:

…27% said they read over [sic] 20 books in 2022, whereas 32% said they read one to five books. Just 18% said they read six to 10 books, and 19% read 11 to 20 books in 2022.

And while 64% planned to read more, 3% of respondents planned to read fewer books in 2023 than they did in 2022. They also published a page of results for 144 Canadian respondents, which suggested “23% said they read over [sic] 20 books in 2022… 32% said they read one to five books. Just 21% said they read six to 10 books, and 17% read 11 to 20 books in 2022.” However, the image on the page shows that 6% of Canadian respondents read no books at all in 2022. While lower than the American stats for non-readers (9%), it’s still a frighteningly high number. I thought Canadians were a lot smarter than that.

A CBC story from 2021 was headlined “Nearly half of adult Canadians struggle with literacy — and that’s bad for the economy. Lower skill sets in reading and writing have financial and democratic consequences.” The article noted:

Despite relatively high education rates, an analysis of international assessments by Statistics Canada in 2013 showed that more than one in six adult Canadians fell short of passing the most basic set of literacy tests… About half the adult population fell short of passing a high school level of assessment, by testing the ability to digest lengthier and more complex texts while processing the information accurately.

What is most troubling about that story is that this means a growing number of Canadians are unskilled in dealing with disinformation and lies that spread so easily online — which helps explain how so many were easily gulled by the anti-vaxxers and their insurrectionist convoy grift:

Another challenge that comes with low literacy is the difficulty in understanding information needed to make informed decisions, both in daily life and at the ballot box. Forty-nine per cent of the Canadian population does not hit a level of literacy that can “disregard irrelevant or inappropriate content” to accurately answer questions about something they have read.

Read that again this way: half of Canadians are not literate enough to recognize disinformation and misinformation. That means they are easy prey for the daily lies and gaslighting spread by the CONservative Party leader and his MPs, as well as Canadian media like the Der-Sturmer-wannabe NatPost, or from far-right ideological sources spreading Putin’s anti-democracy agenda like Rebel Media and Fox Newz.

The article adds, “Researchers say those who struggle with reading and writing tend to also perform poorly on the digital front.” Little wonder that PoiLIEvre and his party are supported by non-readers: they can’t discern the falsehoods.

It frightens me when I read that people don’t read but still vote and breed. It keeps me awake at night wondering what sort of world they are creating. We saw what happened when nations blindly accepted a toxic ideology as faith back in the 1930s under Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. The pro-Putin conservative politicians of today like Trump, Modi, Harper, Orban, and PoiLIEvre would return us to that totalitarian world. One of our few defences left against them is to read outside their lie-spreading social media platforms so we can avoid being conned by their disinformation.

Literate Canada deserves better than the CONservatives.


Notes:

Dilbert cartoon from Facebook
* On several social media platforms, I subscribe to feeds about geology, astronomy, paleontology, evolution, oceanography, medicine, and other sciences. The comments below those posts — for example, a photograph of a distant galaxy or a deep-ocean species, an article about continental drift or a new fossil find — invariably include dozens of anti-science remarks, many from American Talibangelists or flat-earthers pushing biblical creation myths, often challenging the reality of the image, dismissing it as a Photoshop fake or CGI. Recently, groups created to share local and regional information have been inundated with posts and pictures about so-called chemtrails, an old, long-debunked pseudoscience conspiracy but recently dragged again from under its rock by locals. While I often get a chuckle over their risible and self-inflicted ignorance, the sheer and growing number of the ignorati online often discourages me.

** Montgomery also has done surveys on whether respondents think Die Hard is an Xmas movie (it is, dammit, but a mere 39% agree with me), how much Americans know about Napoleon (not very much, with 5% knowing nothing at all), and how many Americans own zesters and mandolins in their kitchen (as a kitchen geek I have both) and how many have sporks (35%, it turns out), as well as more serious surveys of political issues and events.

*** I expect that should Trump or PoiLIEvre be elected to power, they will initiate a massive banning of books from libraries and schools, and encourage followers to publicly burn them. Trump’s Talibangelist followers have already initiated book banning in several US states (all MAGA-Repugnican-governed: no surprise) as well as some highly-publicized book burnings. There have been many attempts in Canada to ban books, from a graphic novel about missing indigenous women to Harry Potter; CBC has a list of 29 of them. There have even been book burnings in Ontario as recently as 2019 when “4,700 individual books were burnt in a ‘flame purification’ by an atavistic Catholic school board.
From the Economist:

Book-banning remains a favourite tool of the autocrat and the fundamentalist, who are both genuinely threatened by the wayward ideas that literature can contain. In democracies books can provoke a different sort of panic. Armies, prisons, prim parents and progressive zealots all seek to censor literature they fear could overthrow their values. Bans on books that shock, mock or titillate reveal much about a time and place. They invariably attract legions of curious readers, too.

**** There are numerous books, articles, and studies about the positive and lasting effects of reading on the brain, including on memory. To learn more, I recommend Maryanne Wolf’s book, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. And check our Harvard University’s page on reading and the brain. Reading is a skill we each have to learn because there is no genetic disposition for it. And like any other skill, it improves with practice — and deteriorates if ignored.
A 2021 story on Inc. was titled “This Is How Reading Rewires Your Brain, According to Neuroscience. Reading doesn’t just cram information into your brain. It changes how your brain works.” The author noted:

Reading, science shows, doesn’t just fill your brain with information; it actually changes the way your brain works for the better as well… deep reading, the kind that happens when you curl up with a great book for an extended period of time, also builds up our ability to focus and grasp complex ideas. Studies show that the less you really read (skim reading from your phone doesn’t count), the more these essential abilities wither…
Reading isn’t just a way to cram facts into your brain. It’s a way to rewire how your brain works in general. It strengthens your ability to imagine alternative paths, remember details, picture detailed scenes, and think through complex problems. In short, reading makes you not just more knowledgeable, but also functionally smarter. Which is why the only thing that everyone you admire can agree on is that you should read more.

Similarly, Science.org has an article titled “How Reading Rewires the Brain” which noted: ” In literate, but not illiterate, people, written words also triggered brain activity in parts of the left temporal lobe that respond to spoken language.”

***** Susan and I fit into their demographic group of readers aged 65 and over, who were “the most likely to read daily (53%)”. We, however, have very different reading techniques. She reads one book at a time, cover to cover, before picking up the next one. I, on the other hand, read several at once, reading a chapter in one, putting it down and picking up another to read a chapter in it, usually at least half-a-dozen at a time, sometimes many more. She reads mostly fiction: crime, detective, police procedurals, fantasy, historical romances, and scifi. I read mostly nonfiction: history, science, politics, and language primarily, and some philosophy, but also try to include at least two novels in my current reading list. We read books two to four hours a day, sometimes a bit more, with some magazines and online articles added into that time. The Washington Post said, “Reading five books put you in the top 33 percent, while reading 10 books put you in the top 21 percent.” We’re both well above 10 but usually below 50. That would put us in the category of “the true one-percenters: people who read more books than 99 percent of their fellow Americans.”

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2 Comments

  1. From The New Republic email campaign:

    Legislation has been introduced in 13 states in 2024—in less than two months—to upend the educational system. They are just part of 100 bills currently pending in 28 states that are designed to exert control over libraries, infringe on students’ privacy, and leave librarians, teachers, and museum employees vulnerable to tens of thousands of dollars in fines, and potentially even jail time—just for doing their jobs.

    “This is not a culture war,” says the American Library Association’s Deborah Caldwell-Stone. “It’s a threat to our democracy.”

    The two newest attacks are in West Virginia and Georgia, where legislators are advancing bills that would hold schools, public libraries, and museums criminally liable for distributing vaguely defined “obscene” content—with the looming threat of criminal charges against library staff.

  2. https://globalnews.ca/news/10326701/bc-school-district-pulls-books-curriculum-content/
    The Talibangelists are at it in Canada:

    Books pulled from B.C. district curriculum in what premier calls ‘crazy decision’

    The Surrey School District has quietly pulled four books from the reading curriculum for students in Grade 10 and above due to concerns about controversial themes.

    In November 2023, a panel of 12 teachers decided to pull the books from the recommended reading curriculum.

    The books will still be available in the library and teachers can apply to teach them, but they won’t be part of the recommended reading lists.

    The four books are: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and In the Heat of the Night by John Ball.

    Ritinder Matthew, the communications officer for the Surrey School District, told Global News on Thursday that the review of these four books began more than a year ago after feedback from parents and others in the community.

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