Kingdom of Letters

I have an almost unhealthy interest in eBook readers – tablet computers that are made specifically for reading. eBook readers tend to use low-power, high-resolution screens that are easily readable in all light levels; and most importantly, they can hold hundreds of books. Unfortunately, no-one has made a particularly good eBook reader yet, despite my incessant checking of gadget and eBook blogs. They all have some problem, whether it’s slow software, high price, bad fonts or low battery life, and I don’t think that situation will change until the end of this year.

eBook blogs like mobileread.com seem a bit dejected by the lack of good news, and have resorted to posting all sorts of unnecessary news. This piece, however, caught my eye:

1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
57 percent of new books are not read to completion.
70 percent of books published do not earn back their advance.
70 percent of the books published do not make a profit.

This apocalyptic vision of books is incredible. I know I read a lot of books – I have hundreds in my flat – and I know that most people don’t read anywhere near as much as I do. I can believe most of the statistics, that most books are not finished. But can it really be true that 42% of college graduate never read another book after college? Or 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives? It’s not clear how the statistics were compiled, but even if they’re remotely accurate, it’s a frightening thought. There’s so much knowledge that I’ve only found through books that is effectively invisible to non-readers.

After seeing this, it struck me that sales of Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code probably approximate the entire book market in the English-speaking world. Harry Potter sold, at most, 17 million copies in the US. Worldwide sales of The Da Vinci Code only reach 60.5 million copies (as of May 2006). If you add together the populations of the US, UK, Canada and Australia, you get over 400 million people (never mind the rest of the world). Considering the enormous amount of hype both books received, you suddenly realise that hardly anyone actually reads books – even easy books!

You could argue, then, that the cultural impact of books is hugely overstated; but then again, books are the source for many other, more popular media (e.g. films). Reading is also vastly overrepresented by people with money and influence.

A tempting possibility is that not that many people ever read books in the first place. However, I’m not sure about this one. Literacy has certainly risen over the past couple of centuries, but so has the amount of competition for our leisure time, especially in the 20th century. If I had to guess, I would say that the proportion of the population that read regularly was at its highest just before radios became available. Still, I doubt that was much higher than what it is now.

Another point is that while book reading may be declining, people are reading more from magazines and on the Internet. This is undeniable, but completely ignores the quality of the text.

The situation in the UK is slightly better:

In a survey of 2,000 adults, a third had not bought a new book in the previous 12 months. 34% said they did not read books. (Expanding the Market, Book Marketing Ltd, 2004)

That means that a whopping two thirds of the UK population claim to have bought at least one book in 2003. Judging by bestseller lists that are packed full of celebrity autobiographies, there’s not much reason for optimism on the quality of these books, but I suppose that’s always been true.

So, what’s to be done? Well, I have no idea. Maybe things will change when eBook readers become cheap and you can buy books for pennies. Or maybe people will always just prefer watching TV, some of which is really rather good. But if you want to live in an enlightened society, I think that’s only achievable if people know and understand the complex stories and concepts that can best be conveyed – and in some cases, only be conveyed – via books.

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2 Replies to “Kingdom of Letters”

  1. The range and quantity of new books published in the UK, although higher than most countries, has been found to be falling since larger supermarkets, who don’t stock a wide range of books, have started flogging Dan Brown, Potter and a few other pleb-pleasing reads. Titles which were traditionally where book shops made their cash and allowed them to stock a wider range of books.

    This is all indicated by the (near) death of independently owned book-shops.

  2. Whilst the majority of books stocked by larger supermarkets tend towards “pleb-pleasing reads” as you put it Chris, I have also noticed a decent range of childrens books, non-fiction, and even a SF/fantasy section in my local Tesco Extra (though unsurprisingly the SF/fantasy section lasted only a couple of months).

    Also, weren’t bookshop chains like Waterstones the main instigators behind the abolition of the Net Book Agreement? Supermarkets haven’t helped matters but surely independent book-shops were in danger long before that.

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