Are American book lovers in decline? Almost a quarter of American adults did not read a book last year, not one. They did not pick up a paperback, listen to an audio recording, or download to a Kindle. They simply did not engage with a single book. Since 1978, the number of non-readers has just about tripled. In 1978, it was 8 percent and now it is 23 percent. This comes from findings published last week by the Pew Research Center.
The instant assumption is that the plethora of modern gadgets that serve to distract and entertain us have tolled the death knell for the book publishing industry. Whereas people used to curl up with a work of fiction, now they mean curl up with a warm laptop and an endless succession of daft YouTube clips, Facebook stalking and catch-up online TV. Have some former book lovers dumbed-down, meaning are they just too impatient now to concentrate for more than three minutes?
The flip-side is that the majority are still reading. Perhaps this is the more surprising fact. With so many other options out there, three-quarters of the population still turn to a book for pleasure, whether it is a traditional printed item or a scroll through on a tablet.
One reason for this could be attributed to the young. Reading levels are very closely linked to higher education and more and more 20 year olds are going to college. Eighty-five percent of the class of 2004 went on to have some form of tertiary education according to the Department of Education. Attending college, even for a short time, has an inflationary effect on reading habits.
Whilst the teens and the 20-somethings have always shown up to read less than adults who are older than them, this is a trend that remains consistent. They don’t read that much, but they average nine books a year. The important fact here is that this figure is not in decline. The figures have held even since the advent of Facebook in 2002. When it all averages out, American adults read five books each in 2013.
This is optimistic news for the book industry, as if the American book lover really was an endangered species it would show up first in the young demographic. There has been a downturn, but there are positive signs that it may self-correct.
Device-ownership is serving to increase e-readership, with half of American adults possessing either an e-reader or a tablet, or both. However, print is still much more popular and looks likely to remain so. The tangible and physical reality of a book is still preferred, and the ability to go on owning, or lending it. Book lovers, as it turns out, love books.
This all follows on from another poll taken last summer by the Huffington Post in association with YouGov, which came up with very similar results. They had a figure of 28 percent for Americans who had not read a book at all in the previous year, correlated from 41 percent who had not read any fiction and 42 percent who had not read any non-fiction.
Why does it matter? Some, like author Neil Gaiman, would say our very future depends on reading. Admitting that he was biased, as a person who makes a living through words, Gaiman gave a lecture in London for the Reading Agency in October 2013. In it, he made an impassioned plea for the future of libraries and a literate society full of book lovers. “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he quoted Einstein, “read them fairy tales.” He continued by saying, “If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” This echoes Einstein’s famed dictum that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Exercising the brain by reading and understanding, comprehending nuance, weighing up arguments, is a great defense against degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s. Reading allows us to develop empathy, enhance vocabulary, think new thoughts, puzzle things out, appreciate differences. Reading continues education far and beyond the end of school or university. Readers are often daydreamers, and the dreamers are the ones who tend to change the world.
For these reasons, and more, it is certainly to be hoped that the American book-lover is not an endangered species, and that the next generation will continue to reverse the decline.
By Kate Henderson