Wednesday, August 22, 2007

We're a nation of non-readers

Unless you work at a library, one of every four people you see today will not have read a book in the past year.

According to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released yesterday, Americans' fat and lazy habits extend to reading, too. The typical American claimed to have read four books in the past year -- half read more and half read fewer.

Apparently, Americans' reading habits are just more evidence of our laziness, which seems to grow boundlessly. We prefer the simplest, passive processes of information consumption, and are willing to sacrifice a little bit of imagination for the convenience. Our much-vaunted American obesity isn't just physical, but it's apparently intellectual and spiritual, too.

Who is reading ... and who is not? Nearly a third of men and a quarter of women are non-readers. They tend to be older, less educated, lower income, minorities, from rural areas and less religious.

Readers tend to include slightly more women, college graduates, and older Americans. Democrats and self-described liberals typically read slightly more books than Republicans and conservatives. Westerners and Midwesterners tend to be the most well-read; Southerners the least. But Southerners who do read tend to read more religious and romance books than everyone else. Anglos read more than blacks and Hispanics. And people who never go to church read almost twice as much as regular churchgoers.

Didn't Oprah, and Barnes&Noble transform America's book-reading habits? Actually, no. They merely transformed America's book-buying habits. Fact is, books remain too much work for a big portion of our wussified, slothful culture. It takes an effort (and, often, an expense) to read a book, but TV is cheaper and requires no effort. And it's becoming too much work for TV-watchers to go to the neighborhood video store, so they have their DVDs mailed to them in pre-paid return envelopes.

Publishers sold $35.7 billion in books around the world last year, 3 percent more than the previous year, according to the Book Industry Study Group. About 3.1 billion books were sold. That's one book for every two people on the planet!

Yes, more books are being sold today than ever before in history, but here in the States, it's only because Americans are so susceptible to marketing. In 50 years, John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" never sold a million copies -- until Oprah chose it for her book club. (I'm personally convinced that most of Oprah's readers never read it, and many of the rest didn't understand it.) Many of those books are being purchased and sit unread on the nightstand until they go in the garage-sale pile or to Goodwill.

Fergawdsakes, go read a book. Join Shelfari. Visit a book club. See the inside of your library (which your taxes built.) Discover the power of your imagination. If you have never read a book, post a message here or email me and I'll arrange to send you a signed copy of my first novel, Angel Fire.

Just read.


Mark Sanborn said...

All I can say is, "Amen."

Great post.

Mana said...

Thanks for pointing me to your blog post. Glad to see this piece of news caught others' attention as well.

An interesting excuse for not reading that I hear a lot lately is that commuters who drive an hour a day each way read less than commuters who take public transportation. And in all reality 2 hours of reading a day could bring readership up. However, I call it an excuse because I see numerous Chicago transit riders who just read the Red Eye, which is one of the most mind numbing publications out there after US magazine.

Jill said...

And I was just thinking of going to the bookstore cause I have read all the books in my house. Out of boredom recently, I resorted to reading Shakespeare. Talk about a comedy of errors.

Donovan S. Brain said...

I don't think it's laziness - they just can't read very well. I'm with Heinlein: I'll read a newspaper that's been used to wrap fish if it's the only words in a row nearby. Most readers read the way alcoholics drink! We can't be stopped - I used to read under the cover with a flashlight as a kid. We even WRITE OUR OWN BOOKS if there's half a chance. I ignore the tv if I have a good book nearby.
. . . but what do I know? I work at a library.

Samuel said...

And here I had fear of death the other day when my overstocked bookshelves started swaying... I tend to at least have a PDA with a card full of books with me, if not a physical book or magazine. Not having something to read about is a frightening thought.

jameswhofheins said...

You said, "Didn't Oprah, and Barnes&Noble transform America's book-reading habits? Actually, no. They merely transformed America's book-buying habits."

You know, that strikes a real chord. How many times do I go to the bookstore (even the Deseret Industries) and buy an armful of books, only to have them land on the shelf with my other un-read treasures?

I need to get off the computer and... well... read!

James Hofheins

Aimless said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Americans laziness is appalling. Reading is an escape, an adventure, an education. It's truly sad that so many people are missing out!

Mana said...

It is said that the historian of religion Mircea Eliade had such passion for reading as a child that he would force himself to sleep only 4 hours per night. He also rationalized this by saying that there were too many books in the world and in order to be able to read as many as possible he would reduce his sleeping time.

What I love about this story is that it shows not only appreciation for the entertainment value of books but also deep respect for all the writing that gets done. Laziness aside, what happened to valuing and appreciating books? Did video kill the book star?

S said...

I have a theory about America's sense of "living culture," something I'll get around to elaborating on one of these days.

I'll be 23 on Friday, but I've already spent a significant amount of time overseas (Germany) and I'm thinking of returning for grad school.

I'm not one of those annoying potential expats that trumpet how great their new country is compared to their homeland, but I see a lot of advantages on an educational and societal level that America cannot offer.

In thinking about my future, I can honestly say that I would not want to raise any potential children here. At the risk of sounding like a complete pessimist, I really believe that the educational system and society has gone so far down the drain that there is now no return.

It breaks my heart to see how little people read, considering it's even cheaper than the ubiquitous resource of TV and all the sensational news. I don't see the future getting any better either.

Thanks for the comment!

bbbustard said...

You're right that it is pure laziness, and at times it seems that the American Dream is really a dream of being as entertained as possible with as little effort as possible. And your point about the spread of obesity is also well made we don't read, just as we don't talk.
I disagree with your point about Oprah however: it's true that she might be as successful as one hears, but she seems to be the only one who even tries to promote reading.

Ron Franscell said...

Oh my, yes, Oprah has done wonders for book sales, just as Amazon and B&N have. They can't be blamed for book-buyers who don't become book-readers. I don't blame the corporate marketers for our bad reading habits.

Some cities and states have even gotten in on book-promotion programs, and that's laudable.

And as an author, I'd LOVE for Oprah to endorse one of my books! Even more, I'd love for her million readers to READ it, too!

Eric said...

This article reveals so much about recent American habits in politics, entertainment, education, you name it.

I blogged on this too.