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?

Thinking Bigger

In October 2007, a new website called Big Think launched. Big Think is meant to be “a Web site that could do for intellectuals what YouTube, the popular video-sharing site, did for bulldogs on skateboards,” (New York Times), a “YouTube for ideas”. What might this entail? You guessed it – videos of intellectuals talking to a camera. Well-produced videos, to be sure, that pose interesting questions to intellectuals sitting in front of a crisp white background, but nothing that couldn’t be done in another medium, such as audio or text.

The overwhelming popularity of YouTube has seemingly made many people decide that intellectual discourse should also migrate to short-form videos. Certainly the backers of Big Think believe that there is an audience for these sorts of videos. One is Lawrence Summers, former Harvard President, who said, “I’ve had the general view that there is a hunger for people my age looking for more intellectual content.”

The problem is, there’s plenty of intellectual content already out there on the web. The most well-known aggregator is Arts and Letters Daily, which links to three articles and essays every day, at least two of which are guaranteed to be actually good and interesting. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Economist, New Yorker, The Atlantic, Der Spiegel, Slate, New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, and a whole host of other publications now make the majority of their content available for free (not to mention the many excellent weblogs out there). No, despite the plethora of skateboarding dogs on YouTube, there is no shortage of intellectual content online.

In other words, when Lawrence Summers says ‘intellectual content’, what he really means is ‘intellectual content on video’. He doesn’t say whether this is because he thinks that most people are more likely to watch an intellectual video than read an intellectual essay (because they dislike reading), or because videos are a superior medium in which to convey intellectual ideas. I can believe the former; I would take serious issue with the latter.

A Superior Medium

With the advent of YouTube and affordable digital video cameras, there are plenty of lectures and talks now online. The more interesting videos eventually percolate upwards, becoming recommended in weblogs posts, and invariably, someone will ask in the comments whether a transcript is available.

There’s a real difference between watching a talk and reading a transcript. A transcript doesn’t convey the tone of voice, the pauses and gestures that punctuate an argument. You can lose much of the passion and presence of what draws people to talks in the first place. Just ask anyone who’s attended a speech by Obama, or Clinton, or Palin if a transcript would have conveyed the same experience. A video is a distant second to being there in person, but at least you can still see the speaker – something you can’t do with words.

And yet people still read articles and essays, and they still demand transcripts. Why?

Speed and Density

Reading is faster than listening. Slide presentations are usually spoken at 100 wpm (words per minute). Audio books reach 160 wpm, and conversations are maintained at 200 wpm. Compare this to the average reading speed of 250 to 300 wpm. In other words, you can read a transcript of a talk in half the time it takes to listen to it – even faster, if you’re able to scan through text.

Of course, most of what we read wasn’t written to be spoken aloud, and so the content becomes concentrated as it loses the baggage – the ums, ahs, ers, pauses, and discourse markers – that the spoken word requires. And what writing lacks in the emotion and presence of video, it makes up in sheer density; not to mention the fact that the written word can evoke emotions just as well as any speech. If your time is valuable, then you may not want to spend 30 minutes watching a talk that you could read in 15 minutes, or scan in 5 minutes to see if there’s anything of interest.

Comprehension and Complexity

The informational density of writing is only half the story. The other half is in the unique ability of the written word to construct and convey complex intellectual ideas. The very persistence of a word on a page (or a screen) allows a reader to take their time to read, consider, and re-read arguments at their own pace; spoken words sweep you along in time, only able to rely on the listener’s short term memory, not the perfect memory of the page.

Try reading out a philosophy paper or even a pop-science book aloud to someone, and see how much they retain and understand after a single pass: it won’t be much. Reading thus has a double advantage over listening – not only can we read faster, but we can also read slower – re-reading and skipping around a page of text in a fraction of a second.

As an article in the New Yorker points out:

…There is research suggesting that secondary orality and literacy don’t mix. In a study published this year, experimenters varied the way that people took in a PowerPoint presentation about the country of Mali. Those who were allowed to read silently were more likely to agree with the statement “The presentation was interesting,” and those who read along with an audiovisual commentary were more likely to agree with the statement “I did not learn anything from this presentation.” The silent readers remembered more, too, a finding in line with a series of British studies in which people who read transcripts of television newscasts, political programs, advertisements, and science shows recalled more information than those who had watched the shows themselves.

I completely disagree with the notion that videos are a superior, or even a desirable, way in which to convey intellectual ideas. At least talks and lectures have the advantage of interactivity, through questions and answers, and through physical presence and scarcity, unlike videos. Assuming that the audience can tolerate reading, the written word will almost always win out in terms of the quantity and quality of information conveyed.

Sitting in front of a camera and answering a question for a minute or two is far easier, and much more fun, than sitting down and writing. You chat for a little while, and poof – you’ve just created a piece of content that anyone in the world can watch! Who wouldn’t prefer that? When you write, you have to be far more considered, because you know that people will inspect it more closely, and that you can be easily quoted; whereas with video, it feels as if there is a lower threshold of quality to reach.*

*Interestingly, this won’t last forever, with automatic speech-to-text software entering the mainstream. Within a few years, it will be easy to search through millions of hours of video as text. I suspect many people are in for a shock.

The Skill of Reading

In an article title What Reading Does for the Mind, Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich describe the importance of reading for all thinking:

Reading has cognitive consequences that extend beyond its immediate task of lifting meaning from a particular passage. Furthermore, these consequences are reciprocal and exponential in nature. Accumulated over time – spiraling either upward or downward – they carry profound implications for the development of a wide range of cognitive capabilities.

Reading is not simply a faster form of listening; it is a qualitatively different process that involves completely different pathways in the brain. The field of language acquisition is a messy and contentious one, but few would disagree with the statement that it is much easier – for whatever reason – for children to learn how to talk than to read.

Not only that, but as we read more and more, the process of reading requires less effort, allowing us to draw comparisons and make connections to other things we have read and seen in the past. Advanced readers really do have a completely different reading experience than learning or basis readers, one that is richer, more entertaining and more engrossing as we can catch the references and asides and jokes. This is what some people call ‘deep reading’, the type of reading the involves analysis and comprehension rather than just word recognition, and it takes time and practice.

It isn’t enough to be able to read – most people are perfectly literate and capable of reading. They simply choose not to. Bernice Cullinan writes in the paper Independent Reading and School Achievement:

Voluntary reading involves personal choice, reading widely from a variety of sources, and choosing what one reads. Aliterates, people who have the ability to read but choose not to, miss just as much as those who cannot read at all. Individuals read to live life to its fullest, to earn a living, to understand what is going on in the world, and to benefit from the accumulated knowledge of civilization. Even the benefits of democracy and the capacity to govern ourselves successfully depend on reading.

If reading isn’t practiced, reading literature or other long-form text becomes and remains a chore. A move towards conveying intellectual content on video, in the hope that it will appeal to those who don’t enjoy reading, only sets an even lower bar for ourselves. Some would argue that the age of reading in terms of public discourse passed long ago:

We are now a culture whose information, ideas and epistemology are given form by television, not by the printed word. To be sure, there are still readers and there are many books published, but the uses of print and reading are not the same as they once were; not even in schools, the last institutions where print was thought to be invincible. They delude themselves who believe that television and print coexist, for coexistence implies parity. There is no parity here. Print is now merely a residual epistemology, and it will remain so, aided to some extent by the computer, and newspapers and magazines that are made to look like television screens. Like the fish who survive a toxic river and the boatmen who sail on it, there still dwell among us those whose sense of things is largely influenced by older and clearer waters.

This quote is over twenty years old, and comes from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Today, people aged 15-34 in the US spend approximately ten minutes per day reading. This is compared with well over two hours of TV, and as mentioned earlier, people learn far less from video than from writing – and they even find it more boring!

Almost seven out of eight American adults cannot compare the viewpoints in two different editorials, and the proportion is worsening. As Christopher Chantrill has said in The American Thinker:

We are not talking here about 87 percent of Americans lacking the skill to write a scintillating article comparing foolish liberal with wise conservative viewpoints on education.  We are talking about 87 percent of adults being not quite up to the task reading a couple of editorials and getting the point.

*For more about the neuroscience of reading, check out Maryanne Wolfe’s excellent Proust and the Squid.

How to get people reading?

It takes hours to finish a book, even for the fastest readers. This wasn’t a problem when books had less competition, but with the three massive timesinks of cable TV, videogames, and the internet, people look at that massive time investment, and they get apprehensive. Sure, they know that books can be just as enjoyable as movies or games, if not more. They may even feel guilty about not reading. But what if this book is no good? What if I end up hating it? What if I can’t understand it? Imagine all the time wasted! And so they stop before they even start.

The videogame industry has a similar problem. Games cost far more than books or movies, and involve an even greater time investment – games often take dozens of hours to complete. As such, gamers are extremely picky what the games they buy. ‘Solutions’ to this pickiness have sprung up organically over the years, and may bear some useful lessons for reading.

Massive piracy has solved the problem for many gamers, at least on the PC and Nintendo DS; people just download an illegal copy of a game, try it for a few minutes, and if they don’t like it, no loss to them (and if they do like it, they’ve saved money). I’ve previously said that book piracy, in the context of eBooks, will happen sooner than anyone thinks, and on an unprecedented scale. Book piracy will almost certainly increase the amount of time people spend reading, and may turn out to be the biggest boost that the writing industry (but not the publishing industry) will ever receive.

Why? Piracy will lowers the barrier to entry – not just in terms of cost, but also convenience. Say you read The 21 Steps, and decide that you must buy Charlie Cumming’s new novel: you have to go to Amazon, add the book to your shopping cart, check it out, pay, and then wait a couple of days for it to arrive. If you’re not an avid reader, you might, at any stage along the process, decide to give up and watch some kittens on YouTube; whereas if you unscrupulously download the book, you can have it within minutes.

People pirate media because it’s the most convenient way to get it. As Apple showed with the iTunes Music Store, if there’s a legitimate alternative that’s equally convenient and reasonably affordable, people will use it. At the moment, book piracy is more or less non-existent since people don’t like reading from computer screens, and eBook readers aren’t quite cheap enough yet. But that’s already changing – the Amazon Kindle eBook reader is popular in the US and allows readers to buy and download a book instantly, wherever they may be. It’s this sort of speedy digital distribution that will encourage reading.

Game publishers have long offered demos, giving players a free taste of the first level (or three) of a game. Now that digital distribution of games is widespread on all the major consoles and on the PC, game demos have become an attractive way for publishers to push their new games, and for players to try before buying; everyone is happy.  In the last couple of years, book publishers have begun offering the first chapter of books for free online. I don’t have the statistics, but I suspect that very few people read them, mainly because it’s very difficult to find them. However, the idea is sound, especially when coupled with a device such as the Kindle, which allows you to find and sample first chapters with ease.

There’s also the question of finding out if a particular game is going to be good. If you buy too many bad games, then you might be dissuaded from buying any more. This actually happened on an industry-wide scale in 1983, when a combination of factors, including a glut of poorly designed games, conspired to bankrupt several videogame companies and led to a crash of the entire industry.

For structural reasons, this is unlikely to happen to the publishing industry; the low cost of writing a book means that there is always a wide variety available, no matter the fads for religious conspiracies or young adult fantasies. However, it can certainly happen on an individual level. Ask anyone who’s read a bad book how long it takes them to begin their next one; most tell me they stop reading for weeks or even months. Again, the reason why this is unique to books is because of the large time investment involved. Watching a bad movie takes only two hours of your life, and no brainpower; reading a bad book can take several hours, and a lot of concentration.

Whether or not they realise it, the continued health of the gaming and book industries rely on ensuring that players and readers don’t waste their time on things they dislike. This is done on a massive scale for games, with hundreds of magazines, websites, blogs and forums offering dozens of reviews for every game. Many players, including myself, now use Metacritic, a site that aggregates and averages review scores, to decide which games to buy.

This focus on scores offends many people, but it provides a vital shortcut that at least helps you avoid buying a bad game. In any case, the wealth of blogs and websites offering text, video, audio and graphical reviews means that it’s not difficult to find a source you can trust. I buy more games than ever now, partly because they are better, but also because I can now reliably identify games that I’ll like, through reviews, and demos.

In contrast, readers are expected to follow the advice of book reviews. Given that most book reviews are in newspapers – another declining medium – it’s hardly surprising that they have less influence than ever; nor is it surprising that the most influential people in the book world are now Oprah (in the US), and Richard and Judy (in the UK). They’re on TV, after all, and they have an audience of millions who trust them. We all know the stories of the Booker Prize, or Richard and Judy catapulting an unknown book to the top of the bestseller lists. A lot of people complain about the resulting monoculture, but where else can readers go? With a dearth of reviews or trusted sources, many readers have to rely on lists of books provided by these shows and awards.

However, even more important than TV is word of mouth. While people continue to recommend books to one another at the office and in book clubs, the energy that surrounds discussion of books online is only a pale shadow of that for TV, film or games. To some extent, this is a self-generating problem, since the people most likely to start online discussions and websites are young, and they don’t read as many books as older people.

The rate of reading will increase massively if readers can have just a little more confidence that the book they are going to read is actually going to be good; and if they can be guided to more interesting books outside of the usual lists.

Reward and Progress

If you go to any games conference, you’ll hear people talking about ‘rewards’. Designers have realised (or decided?) that rewarding the player constantly is the way to hook them. These rewards can be through juicy bits of story, new levels or worlds, trophies, animations, videos, points – anything. Whatever they are, they should come regularly and frequently throughout the entire game, but most importantly, in the beginning.

In the first ten minutes of many new games, players receive such a blizzard of rewards that they’d be forgiven for thinking they’d won the lottery, cured cancer, and completed the game. It sounds ridiculous, and sometimes it is, but this constant encouragement keeps players with the game long enough for them to get into the story and gameplay.

Books are not interactive. You can’t give readers rewards for reaching page 6 (although…). The principle is the same though – you need to give readers momentum. You need to help readers along those nervous first ten minutes when they haven’t quite gotten into the flow yet, and when they’re still being battered by distractions from their TV, radio, mobile phone and computer. After those ten minutes, if they’re hooked, they’re hooked.

It’s easy and fun to rubbish ‘new’ media such as videogames and the internet, but there is a lot we can learn from them. Game designers have never known a time when there were no distractions. They’ve always had to fight for attention amid the noisiest riot of entertainment in history. Making those first paragraphs, those first pages, even more compelling will be the best way of attracting and keeping new readers. Whether this is done through writing or presentation, through bells and whistles or drama, the goal is to grab attention and then gradually, insidiously make people read on, by the strength of the narrative.

We all need training wheels for reading books. God knows that I need them – whenever I fall off the reading wagon by reading a book I don’t enjoy, it can be weeks before I can bear to even pick up a new book. A couple of tricks that have worked for me is re-reading old favourites, or start with some fun and shlocky SF novel; once my wheels are moving again, I can switch to something more interesting and rewarding. I’d prefer something better though; I’d prefer to skip those ‘lost weeks’ and just get reading again.

Designing better training wheels is something I can help with, in some small way. eBook readers, digital distribution, more trusted opinions and reviews – that’s a bigger task, and one that will determine the future of reading, and in all seriousness, the future of democracy and civilisation.

55 Replies to “The Long Decline of Reading”

  1. Hi Adrian,

    Have you read Rolf Dolbelli’s ‘Avoid News’? It is an interesting essay and I must say his insight helped me go back to reading long texts including at least one book per week. I used to devour books when I was younger and at some point I became a bits consumer and wouldn’t read so much. Now I try to limit my daily intake of bits and I am reading much more.
    Maybe he has a point and the problem lies on a constant avalanche of information bits which are like fast food to our brains.

    Here is the essay:

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