The Long Decline of Reading

“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

– Steve Jobs on eBook readers and the Amazon Kindle

Steve Jobs frequently makes disparaging remarks about markets that Apple later enters (MP3 players, mobile phones, games, etc), so there’s little reason to believe that we won’t all have ‘iBooks’ in three years time. Still, the numbers don’t lie – 40% of people in the US (and 34% in the UK) do not read books any more. They may surf the web, or the read the occasional newspaper, but they do not read more than one book (fiction or non-fiction) in a year.

The closer you look at the statistics, the more depressing it gets. In the US, only 47% of adults read a work of literature – and I don’t mean Shakespeare, I mean any novel, short story, play or poem – in 2006. If that doesn’t sound too bad, consider that it’s declined by 7% in only ten years. It doesn’t matter whether you look at men or women, kids, teenagers, young adults or the middle-aged; everyone is reading less literature, and fewer books.*

When I share this ray of sunshine, I encounter three different reactions, the first being acceptance: “Oh well, that’s too bad! What’s for dinner?” But it’s not just bad, it’s awful. Reading skills for all levels of educational attainment are declining, up to and including people with Masters and PhDs. Reading is strongly correlated with all sorts of good things, such as voting, volunteering, civic responsibility, and even exercise. Furthermore, reading skill at a young age is a very good predictor of future educational success and earnings. Correlation is not causation, but it’s a fact that employers are demanding people with better reading and writing skills.

* I suppose there is one piece of good news, in that those aged over 75 are reading slightly more than they used to…

The second is denial: “Are you really sure these statistics are accurate? And even if they are, most people never read books in the first place.” The statistics are as accurate as any that can be found. Most of the numbers quoted here are from the 2007 National Endowment for the Arts report To Read or Not To Read, which conducted its own surveys and collated others from the US government and universities; and all with large sample sizes. I’ve quoted from sections of the report here, but the whole thing is well worth reading.

In case the non-Americans think that none of this applies to them, and that they can stop reading now, they wouldn’t be alone in their countries. Where America goes culturally and technologically, the rest of the world tends to follow. I haven’t been able to find as good statistics for the UK (and I have looked), although those at the Literacy Trust are not cause for celebration.

I am not talking about basic literacy here, which has been steadily rising for the last few centuries and effectively reaching 100% in most developed countries and many others besides. Basic literacy does not show any signs of slipping, but we are in dire straits if that’s the best we can do. It is true that book reading has never been anywhere close to universal, but it is also true that book reading, and the reading of literature, is gradually declining across all age ranges.

Finally, the third is defensive: “So what? People are reading more than ever on the web!” I am not aware of any research showing how much people – young people in particular – read on the web; it’s notoriously hard to measure, since the nature of the technology changes very quickly. In any case, I suspect that the total volume of words that people read on the web is really quite high, perhaps higher than what they would have otherwise read in books.

If we were only worried about the number of words people read, then we could take heart from a couple of game designers I met at a reading event. One said that his mobile phone game had 30,000 words in it. The other informed the audience that his quiz game not only required reading because the questions were written out – rather than spoken – but it actually had a traditional three-act structure (just like real literature) because it had a beginning, middle, and end. I could go on, but I think you get the idea: reading is not only about quantity, it is about quality and complexity. Reading 100 tabloid articles is not the same as reading ten essays or a single book.

The situation is undeniably bad. What’s going to happen next? Continue reading “The Long Decline of Reading”

The ‘Chinese Rejection’

Probably an urban myth, but the ‘Chinese Rejection’ letter from publishers is a good laugh:

“We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of lower standard. And as it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and to beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity.”

ARGs conference slides now online

Most of the slides from the ARGs in Charity and Education conference are now online, in a lovely Slideshare-embedded format. You name it – PowerPoint, Keynote, PDF – we’ve got it. There are also some links to good blog writeups of the conference, in case you want more commentary.

Next time, we’ll record the sessions on video and do podcasts and videocasts and whatnot, but small steps first…

My Daily Read

“You’re better off reading a bunch of blogs than most columnists.” – me, earlier today.

Every time I open the Guardian, or the Times, or any other newspaper, I am disappointed by the poor quality of the columns and editorial. For the most part, they’re barely-informed polemics that are constrained by word limits and motivated by shock-value. If the authors ever were good writers (and to be fair, many of them were), they’ve had the life sucked out of them by having to churn out their column, week in and week out, for years. With a commercial need to cater to a mass audience, authors cannot indulge their own interests and instead lazily rehash their own mundane experiences (‘I waited a whole 30 minutes for a bus yesterday!’).

I could go on, but Stephen Fry describes the problem much better (and funnier) than I could in his podcast on commentary and opinion in journalism. My point is that I would rather read nothing at all than most newspaper columns.

So where do I go for my daily dose of commentary and opinion? Weblogs. Let’s skip past the obvious fact that most weblogs are of little interest to more than a tiny, personal audience and get to the main point – which weblogs are good?

Now, if you’re like me and have been using RSS readers to subscribe to weblogs for years, you’ve may have heard of these. But most people don’t even know what RSS means, so I think it is actually quite useful to list these:

  • Marginal Revolution: There are many well-written economics blogs out there, but Marginal Revolution, written by Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, combine an easy readability with a sharp analytical bent. The blog is supremely up-to-date, and even better, links to the outstanding posts from other ‘econblogs’. Like the best blogs, it occasionally strays from its main topic to cover literature, history and entertainment; for example, see a post on how to survive if suddenly transported back to 1000 AD. It beats any other economics commentary I’ve read; the only problem is that it’s US-centric.
  • 3quarksdaily: Despite its name and intention to be a ‘one-stop intellectual surfing experience’, 3quarksdaily remains on my list of daily reads due to its commentary and links on non-Western politics. The depth of thought there is a refreshing change from the frequently breathless and hasty commentary found on other blogs, and I find it to be a excellent antidote to typically Western views. I do have to admit that I skip at least half of the posts (let’s face it, art is just not my top interest), but those I do read are worth it.
  • Arts and Letters Daily: It doesn’t get much better than A&L Daily – these guys post three links every single day to the very best articles, book reviews and opinion from around the world, whether it’s from a newspaper, magazine, journal, weblog or video. They might not be the most timely of blogs, and they don’t write anything themselves, but if you ever find yourself bored and in need of intellectual stimulation, A&L Daily is perfect.
  • Fafblog: Now, Fafblog is a special case. Firstly, he (it?) barely updates weekly, let alone daily. Secondly, he was recently recruited for the Guardian’s Comment Is Free section, which somewhat contradicts my earlier point. In any case, Fafblog is without doubt the funniest political commentator on the web. You can forget The Onion – that’s for students. This is the real deal. Just check out the classic post, In case of Emergency.
  • FiveThirtyEight: Now that the US election is over, there is admittedly less point in reading FiveThirtyEight. However, during the months preceding it, this weblog provided consistently clear, informed and analytical commentary on the election race. Unusually, the author, Nate Silver, also performed some of the best polling analysis in the world, and was a frequent guest on various news networks. It was basically pointless reading any other polling predictions whatsoever – FiveThirtyEight was widely acknowledged as being the best, and in any case was happy to link to other interesting blogs.
  • The Iceland Weather Report: Are supermarkets in Iceland really running out of food? What’s going on with the riots? Is everyone really depressed over there? You could read an article written by someone who’s visited the country for two days and knows nothing about the place, or you could read a clear-headed weblog from someone who lives there, and even better, can write extremely well. Your choice.
  • Cosmic Variance: New Scientist? Don’t make me laugh. Scientific American? I can barely stay awake. Cosmic Variance is really the best place I’ve found for news and commentary about physics, space and other hard sciences; it’s engagingly-written, and is great for scientists and ‘laypeople’ alike.

I have about 70 other feeds I subscribe to, but most of them are just pure news. I also read most of the New York Times every day, which occasionally has decent columns, and the New Yorker, The Atlantic, and the Economist.

I actually tried, unsuccessfully, to unsubscribe from the Economist a few weeks ago, after I became yet again enraged by its smarmy, supercilious tone, and seeming indifference to being completely and utterly wrong every single week – but then I discovered the unsubscription process was a little more circuitous than I first thought. I also grudgingly admitted that it had some interesting reporting from around the world, but I’m not terribly happy about it and am considering swapping it with the London Review of Books.

In case you think I’m freeloading, I probably pay more for my reading than 95% of the UK population, given that I subscribe to the Economist, New Yorker and Atlantic. I would pay for the New York Times as well, but it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense given the distance (however, when an eBook version arrives, I’ll be there).

It is also worth noting that all of the blogs I’ve mentioned do not charge their readers anything. Yes, believe it or not, there are people out there who are prepared to make gifts of their writing.