The Decline of Reading

As anyone around me can attest, I’ve been a little bit obsessed with Amazon’s Kindle lately. I’m interested in most everything about it — the form factor, the publishing industry, the readability, the tactile loss of books, the comparisons to the iPod economy — on and on. I’ve also been thinking a lot about Sunnyvale’s 50 year old library and our electorate’s reluctance to build a new one. And on a personal level I’ve been noting that while when I used to travel I’d read several books each trip, increasingly I’m watching videos and listening to music instead. And then I read a book called The Terror Presidency, by Jack Goldsmith, former top lawyer at OLC and the guy who overturned the infamous “torture memo” — and was reminded how seldom we see long-form arguments anymore — that we most often get our news and public discourse in headlines, Daily Show gags, and the front page of the Times while waiting in line at Starbucks.

Anyway, I’ve been worried about reading of late — both my own (although I’m still doing fine, and have about a half dozen books to blog soon), and our society’s. The National Endowment for the Arts just published a collection of studies which indicates some bad news on this front. A few bits:

  • Less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers, a 14 percent decline from 20 years earlier. Among 17-year-olds, the percentage of non-readers doubled over a 20-year period, from nine percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004.
  • On average, Americans ages 15 to 24 spend almost two hours a day watching TV, and only seven minutes of their daily leisure time on reading.
  • Literary readers are more likely than non-readers to engage in positive civic and individual activities – such as volunteering, attending sports or cultural events, and exercising.

Disquieting for me, at best.

8 Replies to “The Decline of Reading”

  1. I think part of the reason for the decline in reading has to do with how we’ve become such a textual society. Once upon a time the majority of a job wasn’t about staring at glyphs on a computer screen. These days, between computers on every office desk, mobile email, mobile web, etc. etc. tickers on the bottom of news channels, and so on, we spend the majority of our life deciphering these squiggles.Most leisure reading these days is dual purpose, such as reading rss feeds, for both education and fun.I’ll be perfectly honest. After sitting in front of a computer 10hrs a day, the last thing I really feel like doing is staring at text during the little time to relax.I guess the saying holds true even on a slightly different topic… Even people who live in [insert tropical island here] go somewhere on vacation. Despite home being a paradise. While reading may be relaxation, people who do it all day, desire something that’s non-work-like.

  2. I think part of the reason for the decline in reading has to do with how we’ve become such a textual society. Once upon a time the majority of a job wasn’t about staring at glyphs on a computer screen. These days, between computers on every office desk, mobile email, mobile web, etc. etc. tickers on the bottom of news channels, and so on, we spend the majority of our life deciphering these squiggles.

    Most leisure reading these days is dual purpose, such as reading rss feeds, for both education and fun.

    I’ll be perfectly honest. After sitting in front of a computer 10hrs a day, the last thing I really feel like doing is staring at text during the little time to relax.

    I guess the saying holds true even on a slightly different topic… Even people who live in [insert tropical island here] go somewhere on vacation. Despite home being a paradise. While reading may be relaxation, people who do it all day, desire something that’s non-work-like.

  3. Hi John:Some good insight in your post. As a book addict (its a quiet, non-violent addiction), I worry about the decline in reading as well. I think the solution rests in our inability to teach the joy of reading. Perhaps we shouldn’t force high school students to start reading Dickens and Shakespeare first. Isn’t that like asking our kids to learn to love baseball by trying to hit Roger Clemens on their first at bat?Here’s a better solution:http://darkpartyreview.blogspot.com/2007/11/ess

  4. Hi John:
    Some good insight in your post. As a book addict (its a quiet, non-violent addiction), I worry about the decline in reading as well. I think the solution rests in our inability to teach the joy of reading. Perhaps we shouldn’t force high school students to start reading Dickens and Shakespeare first. Isn’t that like asking our kids to learn to love baseball by trying to hit Roger Clemens on their first at bat?

    Here’s a better solution:

    http://darkpartyreview.blogspot.com/2007/11/essay-fixing-our-reading-problem.html

  5. I agree with GFS3. In early elementary school, myself and my (albeit somewhat nerdy) friends were very into reading. That desire to read dropped dramatically as more and more “boring” – huge quotes back there – books were forced down our throats (or.. eyes?).

  6. I agree with GFS3. In early elementary school, myself and my (albeit somewhat nerdy) friends were very into reading. That desire to read dropped dramatically as more and more “boring” – huge quotes back there – books were forced down our throats (or.. eyes?).

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