Woe is me: The supposed decline of reading

by Pari Noskin Taichert

I keep hearing about the sad state of reading in this country. Publishers bemoan a shrinking audience. Writers tremble at the stats. An NEA report from 2004 paints a bleak picture.

Yet, publishers continue to produce more and more books. Whole stadiums of people call themselves writers now and assume they’ll have readers someday. The NEA report was printed rather than simplified into an animated cartoon form.

All this wailing and knuckle-gnashing is getting tiresome. In my small corner of experience, the facts don’t mesh with the groans.

During the last month, I’ve had more than 13 public events. These booksignings, public presentations, conventions and bookclubs have brought me into stores, airports, private homes, restaurants and hotels. You know what? People are, indeed, reading for pleasure. They’re doing it a lot. Even in little ol’ New Mexico, which often stands with its face turned to the corner when it comes to illiteracy, people read.

Lest you think it’s only old farts who are whipping out books, let me reassure you that I’ve talked fiction with twenty-somethings and high school students. At the Tony Hillerman Writers’ Conference a few weeks ago, a young woman walked up to me with an Ipod in her hand.

I asked what she was listening to.

"I download books from the internet. Why would I bother with music when there’s so much good literature out there?" she said.

I thought I was hallucinating.

Is everyone else in the literary world encountering a far different subset of our culture? Why all the rending of clothes? The bloomers in a dither? The Cassandra predictions about the end of the written word?

Sure, my empirical samples may be small, but it’s not like I go out looking for them. I just notice a helluvalot of people reading books and magazines.

To be fair, I do believe there are factors that threaten reading as we know it. In my kids’ classes, teachers use videos and movies far more than they did when I was a girl. The allure of television and computer games at home has increased. Indeed, in our family, we limit our kids’ TV and computer playtime tremendously. They have no choice but to read.

Teenagers are busier and more scheduled than they used to be, too. They’ve also got a far broader range of communication choices than even a generation ago. Sure, they read books for school, but many have lives so full that it’s difficult to slow down enough to read anything longer than a cereal box.

Still, I’m not sure that this means these kids won’t turn into readers.

A little known fact: I hated reading until I was sixteen and desperate for English while living in France. It was there that I finally learned that books could be pleasures rather than obligations. Who knows? If I hadn’t been hungry for my native language then, would I be a reader today?

Last Friday, I went to our public library and spoke with one of my favorite people there. Gail Miller is a librarian and wife of John J. Miller. She’s also a YA reader for a NY publisher. I asked her if she thought people are reading less nowadays.

"Not substantially," she said, leading me to a book she adored and wanted me to check out. "And, people who read are actually reading more."

She should know.

Me?

I think it may be true that reading runs the risk of obsolescence someday. . .  though I don’t see much evidence of it myself. As a culture, we may need to figure out ways to ensure that children and teens have the time, quiet and space to foster good reading habits.

However . . . rather than add that worry to my already full mind and heart, I’ll get back to writing for the readers who do read. I expect their numbers to be strong for a long, long time.

9 thoughts on “Woe is me: The supposed decline of reading

  1. Naomi

    Back in town, guys! And yes, Pari, I’ve heard anecdotal reports that some teens are indeed reading. A middle-school teacher told me that he has students (mostly girls) who get in trouble because they read too much. Since I’m working on a YA book now, I frequent teen sections and get excited when I overhear a bookseller ask a young customer, “What kind of books do you like to read?” Gives me goosebumps, really.

    p.s. But, on the hand, the recent craziness over the new Playstation reveals that most people’s passions may lie elsewhere!

    Reply
  2. pari noskin taichert

    Naomi,Welcome back!

    You know what? I’ve SEEN teens reading. Yes. Really.

    Re: the Playstation crazeFrankly, I don’t think reading and game-playing are mutally exclusive — in the big picture.

    Given the millions of dollars spent on Playstation marketing research and advertising for this product, it’d be astounding if it failed.

    Imagine what would happen if books were marketed with the same bankroll and verve.

    Of course, they’d each have to cost hundreds of dollars to support that kind of media blitzing.

    Reply
  3. Elaine Flinn

    Wonderful post, Pari! I too am sick and tired about reading how ‘reading’ is in a decline. The more written about it – the easier it will be to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If more columnists and essayists turned that notion around – well…who knows?

    Reply
  4. Carstairs38

    I’ve got more evidence for you, The LA Times Book Festival. I’ve gone every year for at least six years now, and every year it gets more and more crowded. Since it’s nothing but books and authors, obviously this is further proof people don’t read.

    I didn’t read much in high school and college. Not because I didn’t want to but because I didn’t have the time. Even the first few years out of college I didn’t read a whole lot. Now I read as much as I did as a kid.

    Yes, TV takes some of my time. But I do try to balance the two. It can be done if people are willing to make the effort. And, like you, I believe many of them do.

    Mark

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  5. Deni Dietz

    I don’t know about reader (stats), but there are more writers out there. And what gobsmacks me is when a writer tell me he/she doesn’t read.

    Excuses rage from “I don’t read when I’m writing” to “I don’t have time to read…oh, wait…hang on, Deni…someone is yelling NO DEAL…where was I?”

    Reply
  6. pari noskin taichert

    Mark,Going to the L.A. Festival is an absolute high for any author. I love meeting all of those book lovers who are open to new experiences in literature.

    Deni,That kills me too. While I might not read witty mysteries while I’m writing my own — I never stop reading.

    Sheesh.

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  7. guyot

    All the research I’ve done shows that yes, it’s true. I know most don’t like to hear it, but it’s true.

    Did anyone else read that article last year (I forget whose site I saw it on) about libraries and librarians? Where the librarians who’d been doing the job for ten years or said they definitely see fewer readers. They blamed the Internet.

    And haven’t book sales been dropping every year? Which usually gets blamed on DVDs.

    But here’s what’s odd… there are more books being published now than ever before. Is that simply because there are so many more publishers out there?

    A person at one of the very large houses recently told me that the number of publishers (this does includes vanity) has tripled since 1990. But why, if readers are dropping?

    This person also said that they publish more copies than ever of Big Name A-List authors, but publish far fewer copies of mid and lower list authors than they did ten years ago.

    I think it’s that horrible Hollywood mentality that has wormed its way into the publishing world. If it doesn’t work for Hollywood, why would the publishing world think it’s going to work for them?

    I understand Hollywood execs being too ignorant to realize their business model is a failure, but I would think (read: hope) publishing execs were somehow smarter….

    Reply
  8. pari noskin taichert

    Yeah, Paul,I don’t get the model publishers are using right now. They’re risk-adverse but end up putting all of their money into relatively few projects. Investment 101 says to diversify.

    As to the reality — I know that all the studies do say there are less readers. Still, I think there are far more than we acknowledge most of the time. And, I’m just tired of all the doom-and-gloom right now.

    There are a lot of good, solid and voracious readers out there. I want to meet every single one.

    Reply

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