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”

Teaching ARG Design to teenagers

The vision: Eager teens, listening quietly and attentively as I led a discussion about alternate reality games.

The reality: Thirty seconds into my prepared spiel, there were four hands waving in the air and the kids at the back were already talking. “Oh boy,” I thought, hoping to make a quantum leap out of here, but it didn’t happen.

Three exhausting hours later, and what might be the world’s first ARG Design Workshop for teenagers was over. I was pretty happy – but even happier that there had been four other people there to help.

Before I get into any details of the workshop, I should provide some personal background. I’ve always enjoyed explaining things, whether it’s through educational websites or in person at conferences. I’ve never done anything aimed solely at teenagers – and I don’t think I have the energy or temperament to be a teacher – but I have occasionally worked with some really interesting and smart teens before, and I’ve long thought that it would be fun to expand and formalise that.

A few months ago, in the course of some work with Channel 4, Six to Start got talking with Roundhouse Studios. Roundhouse is an organisation in north London that gives teenagers the resources to make music, film videos and design computer games, all using some very respectable facilities and equipment. They wanted more multimedia and game design classes, we wanted to talk to some teenagers – it was meant to be.


When Claire (also from STS) and I sat down to plan the workshop, we had two big problems: we had no idea how many teens would be in the workshop (other than ‘definitely more than two’), and even worse, we didn’t know how old they would be. Our listing in the Roundhouse brochure was for teenagers aged from 13 to 18 – that’s wide as it is, but we knew that kids as young as 11 might turn up. No doubt they’d all be smart and at least somewhat engaged, but there’s a world of difference between 11 and 18.

From this tricky position, we came up with the following structure. We were well aware that it wouldn’t fully survive contact with reality and that we’d have to improvise, but it looked something like this: Continue reading “Teaching ARG Design to teenagers”

English Literature

At my school, all students were entered into the English Literature GCSE. What this meant was that a couple of times a week, we would take out copies of ‘English Literature’ – things like The Crucible, A Passage To India, various Shakespeare plays, poems – and take turns reading them out.

There is nothing that kills a good story more than having a bunch of bored schoolboys reading out books like these, not to mention Shakespeare. For one thing, reading ‘blind’ means that the speaker has absolutely no idea what emphasis to put on the words; for another, it usually took a few weeks to get through a single work. Most of the time I’d already read the whole thing at home right after receiving the book, and so sitting in class took on a special kind of boredom.

As if this wasn’t enough, we would then have to write essays about the ‘significance’ of various parts of the books or plays. What did the red brick colonial house in A Passage to India signify? What is the meaning of this passage in Macbeth? And so on.

Despite all of this, I quite enjoyed some of the books – I still remember The Crucible quite fondly. However, it wasn’t until I saw The Merchant of Venice being performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company on a school trip that I realised his stuff was not only good, but actually really funny. See, until then, my experience of Shakespeare had been these readings in class, and a video of Richard II, where Richard was played by a woman.

Presumably some people liked this production, otherwise I can’t see why our teacher chose to show it. But I can’t think of a worse thing to show a bunch of schoolboys – it just seemed totally ridiculous. It was hard enough trying to follow the play on a TV, but the lead character swapping sex was just too much. I suspect a lot of students from my school still dislike Shakespeare due to these experiences. I don’t entirely blame my teacher, because she was just trying to prepare us for our exams (it was that kind of school), but it seems a shame nonetheless.

A comment on Metafilter reflects my feelings on this perfectly:

As far as I’m concerned, “Hamlet” doesn’t have a “point.” There’s nothing to “get.” It’s not something to see so you can check it off the “things I guess I should see” list.* Please! If that’s your reason for seeing it, don’t see it in the first place…

…I blame school. In school, we’re forced to read Shakespeare when we’re don’t want to. Most of the people I know who love Shakespeare, love him in spite of that, not because of it. Luckily, they already liked Shakespeare before encountering him in school, so the forcing didn’t seem like forcing. Or, if they were like me, they hated it. I hated “Romeo ad Juliet” when I was forced to read it in High School. I hated anything I was forced to read, just because it was forced on me.

Most people in my shoes feel a distaste for whatever was forced on them for the rest of their lives. At 42, I’m only JUST getting over my distaste for math. I can see math is a beautiful subject, but because it was forced on me before I was ready for it, it’s hard for me to shake the desire to rebel against it. And because of gym class, I wonder if I’ll EVER learn to like sports. Luckily, I had other formative experiences that stopped me from associating Shakespeare with school. So I like Shakespeare.

Also, in school, one is pretty much told that we watch/read plays to “get the point.” It’s all about Theme, Message, Social Import, blah, blah, blah. It’s not about crying when Cordelia dies or laughing when Bottom turns into an ass. School ignores or — worse — scorns the best part of fiction: the laughter, the tears, the emotional spice!

Finally, school teaches us that smart people are supposed to like Shakespeare — or at least read/see his plays. If you don’t like it, you’re dumb. So we wind up with a bunch of people who don’t really want to read or see Shakespeare but feel like they should. Of COURSE these people — once they’ve finished with the pain of sitting through “Hamlet” — don’t want to do it again

He’s right. In my class, we never talked about the emotions of the play. We never thought we were supposed to laugh at this stuff, or treat it like anything but a chore.

The Videogame Straitjacket

Like many others, when I was kid, two of the games I had the most fun with were Lego and Meccano. It would be trite to go into the reasons why, and it’s enough to say that construction kits like these offer kids a unique place to use their imagination to build anything they want, and the freedom to experiment. Plus they’re cheap and pretty much indestructible, which always helps.

So when I read a review* of Howard P. Chudacoff’s new book Children at Play: An American History, I was pleased to see that he argued that children’s play has become far too regulated and controlled by adults. In terms of playgrounds that have built-in areas for attendants and ‘facilitators’, Cindy Dell Clark, a historian at Penn State Delaware county says:

“Parents are thinking that they’re helping kids with play that has a goal. It’s not really play, because play is something that’s self-determined.”

Chudacoff also makes a good point when comparing old-fashioned toys to ‘entertainment products’ (including, sadly, Lego kits that can only be built into a single prescribed model)?:

Chudacoff led the way to a small, old-fashioned Providence toy store, Creatoyvity, which carries hardly any toys licensed from television and movies. Chudacoff looked over the figures of knights and kings, gorillas, giraffes, cows, monkeys, rhinos, chickens and dinosaurs, as well as the beads, blocks, paint, glitter, trucks, cranes, tractors and wooden toys imported from Germany.

“It’s a toy store rather than an entertainment center,” Chudacoff said, explaining that with so much commercial licensing, toys have become more of an offshoot of the television and film industries than elements of play.

One result is that a toy comes with a prepackaged back story and ready-made fantasy life, he said, meaning that “some of the freedom is lost, and unstructured play is limited.”

I found myself nodding vigorously at this page. It really is a shame that the most popular toys don’t aim to stimulate kids’ imaginations; instead, their goal is to capture their minds into a vast franchise that includes dolls, cartoons, toys, videogames, movies and books – no need for imagination here, we’ll spell it all out for you!

And then my nodding was abruptly terminated by the next paragraph:

Video games put more of a straitjacket on imagination, he complains. And online versions of traditional games like Monopoly don’t permit players to make up their own rules (like winning money when you land on Free Parking), to harvest the fake money and dice for an altogether different game or even to cheat.

Chudacoff has a good point here – at least when it comes to the games he’s thinking of. There are precious few videogames that allow for the same amount of freedom and play that, say, the outside world does, and a computer version of Monopoly is inferior to the physical version (although the less said about the credit card edition, the better). Continue reading “The Videogame Straitjacket”

All Souls: The toughest test you’ll ever take

If you’ve ever visited Oxford, chances are that you’ll spend some time in Radcliffe Square, admiring the University Library and the round Radcliffe Camera building. Along the east side of the the square is a long wall with a black metal gate set into it; people often poke their heads in to see an immaculate yet strangely deserted quadrangle. This is All Souls college.

Unlike most colleges in Oxford, All Souls does not admit undergraduates. It currently has 76 fellows, as well as a number of visiting fellows. For a college that has an endowment of around £144m, this is a small group indeed. Depending on their status and, for example, whether they teach at Oxford, fellows of All Souls receive a certain stipend and rooms; nothing huge, but enough for them to pursue whatever line of research they might want. This alone would be an attractive prospect for any academic, but the reputation of the college and fellows both current and past (e.g. Isaiah Berlin, Christopher Wren, Amartya Sen) including elevates the college into a realm that is occupied by, arguably, none other than itself.

All Souls holds a particular fascination for Oxford students. While most fellows who join the college are postdocs and are elected by its current members, every year, two graduate students – who might be as young as 21 – are admitted as Prize Fellows. The way these two people are chosen is through a famous exam.

The exam consists of five papers. Two are on general topics (PDF), such as:

  • Can terrorism be justified?
  • Would you have burned Franz Kafka’s manuscripts, as he requested in his will?
  • If the Greeks invented democracy, what is it?
  • Is good for literature?
  • Is China overrated?
  • What can we learn from Las Vegas?
  • Is Dark Energy more interesting than Dark Matter?

These two general papers have around 30-40 questions each, and candidates have to answer three questions on each, with three hours per paper (i.e. one hour per question). Two more papers are based on the candidate’s field of study, and cover Classics, Economics, English, History, Law, Philosophy and Politics (all PDFs). These subject-specific papers have fewer questions per paper, and while they are relatively general questions, e.g.:

  • Whither social democracy after Tony Blair? (Politics)
  • Can animals think? (Philosophy)
  • Why was resistance to the Mongols so seldom successful? (History)
  • Write on any one of the following: games, food, body parts (English)

you clearly have to have a good grasp of the subjects; or at the very least, you would gain a real advantage from having studied them at the degree level. In other words, it would be difficult to wing it; there just aren’t enough ‘really general’ questions on the subject papers to make that possible.

These questions are all very interesting and I know that candidates enjoy being able to tackle such broad issues. Even so, the exam wouldn’t have its legendary status if it wasn’t for the fifth paper. Here is a question from last year’s fifth paper:

  • Water

That’s it. You have three hours to write an essay on ‘water’. You can do pretty much whatever you want, although they do discourage ‘verse, stories or autobiographical accounts’. Here are other questions: Continue reading “All Souls: The toughest test you’ll ever take”


Interesting article from today’s New York Times, What a College Education Buys:

Moreover, if you’re not planning on becoming, say, a doctor, the benefits of diligent study can be overstated. In recent decades, the biggest rewards have gone to those whose intelligence is deployable in new directions on short notice, not to those who are locked into a single marketable skill, however thoroughly learned and accredited. Most of the employees who built up, say, Google in its early stages could never have been trained to do so, because neither the company nor the idea of it existed when they were getting their educations. Under such circumstances, it’s best not to specialize too much. Something like the old ideal of a “liberal education” has had a funny kind of resurgence, minus the steeping in Western culture. It is hard to tell whether this success vindicates liberal education’s defenders (who say it “teaches you how to think”) or its detractors (who say it camouflages a social elite as a meritocratic one).

Most people would agree that being skilled in multiple areas is a useful thing, but I don’t think people realise quite how useful. At a simple level, in Mind Candy we’re setting up a page where we list people’s ‘secret ninja skills’ – skills that aren’t their primary specialty, but can be called upon if necessary (e.g. photography, drawing, designing presentations, writing HTML, etc). Yet as the article suggests, Google and similar startups aren’t the result of specific courses, but of people who had diverse backgrounds.

Becoming and remaining flexible in university and in life adds something that can’t be measured in terms of grades or marks, only in originality, success and long-term happiness. Part of the reason why this subject interests me is because I’m finding it hard to describe what sort of specific skills are useful for ARG designers, beyond grasp of gameplay and story and the ‘ability to deploy intelligence in new directions on very short notice’.

Lack of imagination

Once again we are at that special time of year when the GCSE and A-Level results are announced for secondary school students here in the UK. There’s almost no point reading the newspapers since they always run the same stories. If the results for an exam improve, that’s because it’s getting easier. If they get worse, it’s because of lowered standards. There’ll be a few people complaining that they didn’t get into Oxbridge with ten A’s at A-Level, and of course there are the stories about the child wonders.

This year it seems that an eight year old boy gained an A* at Maths GCSE. Funny that, how it’s always a Maths or Computer Science exam that people seem to get first. (My take is that GCSE Maths and similar subjects are trivially easy for kids who have the right sorts of minds; there’s nothing inherently difficult about simultaneous equations or calculus, it’s just that they’re boring and most people can’t be bothered putting the effort in.)

There was also another story last week about a 13 year old boy who was expected to get a bunch of A-Levels and had been refused entry to university because he was too young. I find this crazy. There is absolutely no way that a 13 year old can get the best out of university; quite apart from not being able to drink, it’s just not legal for a 13 year old to live on their own. So say you go with your parents; well, that kind of kills off any possibility of living a normal independent university life.

But that’s not the main problem I have with kids doing exams so early and wanting to go to university. My problem is that there are far more interesting and useful things to do than take exams at such an early age. This doesn’t mean that they should spend all their time playing football and mucking about; rather, it means that if they are interested in, say, computers or science, they could try their hand at programming a game or devising experiments. Just not exams!

When I was at San Diego, there was a 16 year old schoolboy in the lab who had been there for a year designing and running his own psychological experiments. He was very sharp and a very nice guy, and I was happy to see that instead of taking a load of pointless exams (who needs ten A-Levels?) he was doing something interesting and productive. Plus, I’m willing to bet that university admissions officers will be more impressed with the three papers he’ll have published than a couple of high exams marks.

I agree that there is a point to doing exams, but I feel that it’s an unconscionable waste of time pushing kids to do a bunch of exams five years ahead of normal. There are so many better things to do.

Word Limit

“… You should aim for a total text length of 6000 words. Other than in exceptional circumstances, you should not exceed 8000 words.”

That’s a typical guide for a dissertation at Cambridge. When I read that, I think to myself, ‘Okay, in that case I should aim to write around 6000 words.’ Seems straightforward enough.

But apparently I am almost alone in that regard. Most people think, ‘Right, if the word limit is 8000 words, I am going to write 8000 words. In fact, I’m going to write as much as is humanly possible without blatantly breaking the rules.’ If the word limit was 10,000 words, they’d write 10,000. If it was 15,000, you’d still see people complaining about not being able to fit everything in.

How do I know this, other than the fact that other people have told me their essay word counts? It’s through the way people talk about word limits. I commonly hear questions like, ‘Are figure legends included in the limit?’, ‘Does it matter if we’re a few hundred words over’ and ‘Can I use numbers to refer to references instead of authors?’

What the hell? If people are worried about adding a few dozen words onto their essay, I hate to think of how far over the word limit they are. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that people are emphasizing quantity over quality, but I do get the feeling that many students have no appreciation for the elegance of a short and concise piece of writing. And why indeed should they, when it’s so much easier to write down every single detail and repeat yourself? It’s as if people are writing essays without realising that someone has to actually read them.

It should come as no surprise that all of the examiners and supervisors I’ve spoken to greatly prefer shorter and concise essays than bloated ones, and that in general, short is good. That’s not to say that you can’t write a good, long essay that hits the word limit, but it is much more difficult and there is always the question of whether the topic warrants a long treatment.

Perhaps it’s just my work-avoidance skill speaking, but I have a real love of concise writing that tries to be as comprehensible as possible. It really is an art, and when I read a well-written essay and learn something new, it’s enjoyable. In contrast, reading bloated essays feels like a battle; tiring and depressing. So kids: conciseness is your friend!

The Great Library

If and when I ever leave the world of academia, I will be very sorry. Not because of the usual reasons, but because I will no longer have free access to thousands of academic journals on the Internet. It’s simply a wonder to be able to go over to Pubmed, type in any keyword, and get links to dozens or hundreds of papers and reviews that I can download as PDF. It’s a real shame that most journals won’t allow the public to browse their archives. I’m well aware that there are several projects to try and get more papers into the public domain, which is laudable, but it just isn’t enough.

Here’s a practical example. In preparation for revision, I’ve been downloading the PDFs for every single paper that’s been referenced in my course so far. As you might imagine, that adds up to quite a lot of papers – just under 200, I think. The point here is not that I’m going to read all of them, which would be a waste of time, but I don’t want to have to be going off and searching around for references all the time. It’s much more convenient having them all in one place.

So, it took me a fair few hours to get all the papers together. I reckon I managed to download about 80-90% of all of the references; I couldn’t get some because they were too old (why can’t all journals be like Science and host every single issue online, eh?) or because Cambridge isn’t subscribed to all of the journals (either we’re being extorted, or we’re too cheap – or both). Perhaps 10% of all of the papers I downloaded were available online for free, and most of those were from PNAS.

It really is astonishing how much information is out there, online at journals, and I honestly can’t imagine how much science would be accelerated and improved if everyone had free access to all papers.