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The decline in reading: take 3

by Jerome Weeks 17 Jan 2008 6:51 PM

In an earlier post, Yolette Garcia expressed her legitimate concerns about the supposed decline in reading. I’ve previously posted that I think some of the National Endowment for the Arts’ concerns have been overblown because their studies actually measured only a particular sort of reading (they didn’t include reading histories, biographies or science studies, for […]


In an earlier post, Yolette Garcia expressed her legitimate concerns about the supposed decline in reading. I’ve previously posted that I think some of the National Endowment for the Arts’ concerns have been overblown because their studies actually measured only a particular sort of reading (they didn’t include reading histories, biographies or science studies, for example). But Yolette cited the truly sobering New Yorker feature by Caleb Crain, which takes the loooong view. It’s remarkable, Crain argues, that considering our neural anatomy and the history of literacy, humans read at all. Partly as a result (and drawing from the current evidence he cites), he has an extremely gloomy take on the future: “More alarming are indications that Americans are losing not just the will to read but even the ability.” And “No effort of will is likely to make reading popular again.”

Now comes noted author Ursula K. LeGuin in the Feburary issue of Harper’s (unfortunately, a subscription is required to read the full text). Her essay doesn’t argue against Crain’s so much as complement it, although she does want “to question the assumption–whether gloomy or faintly gloating–that books are on the way out. I think they’re here to stay. It’s just that not all that many people ever did read them. Why should we think everybody ought to now?”

LeGuin has a more immediate, inside-the-industry critique than Crain, and it’s a familliar one (I’ve made similar points): Much of the current crisis — if we can call it that — comes from corporate media taking over the literature-arts publishing houses, which have rarely made substantial profits, and then cranking them up into money machines. When they fail or balk, the industry starts blowing a gasket:

To me, then, one of the most despicable things about corporate publishers and chain booksellers is their assumption that books are inherently worthless. If a title that was supposed to sell a lot doesn’t “perform” within a few weeks, it gets its covers torn off — it is trashed. The corporate mentality recognizes no success that is not immediate….

I keep hoping the corporations will wake up and realize that publishing is not, in fact, a normal business with a nice healthy relationship to capitalism. Elements of publishing are, or can be forced to be, successfully capitalistic: the textbook industry is all too clear a proof of that…. But inevitably some of what publishers publish is, or is partly, literature — art. And the relationship of art to capitalism is, to put it mildly, vexed. It has not been a happy marriage ….

So why don’t the corporations drop the literary publishing houses, or at least the literary departments of the publishers they bought, with amused contempt, as unprofitable? Why don’t they let them go back to muddling along making just enough, in a good year, to pay binders and editors, modest advances and crummy royalties, while plowing most of the profits back into taking chances on new writers?

  • Okay, can this possible be true? Aren’t there more and larger bookstores now than ever before. My goodness, just think of Half Price Books. I mean my wishlist is longer than the number of books I owned when I got out of law school. Every woman I know is in a book club. (seems to be primarily women, we dudes are apparently a solitary reader sort.)

    I’m reading two books now, The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai by John Tayman and Deep Ellum and Central Track: Where the Black and White Worlds of Dallas Converged Alan B. Govenar and Jay F. Brakefiel.

    I admit I don’t read much fiction any more, but I’ve read loads of it over the years.


  • Regardless of the NEA’s studies, the evidence provided by Caleb Crain do point to a disturbing downward trend in reading — and despite what one might think about American education — a broad trend that is seen elsewhere, too (hence, Crain’s attempt to discuss it in terms of what is “normal” or “recent” for our Stone Age brains).

    Here’s a simple economic fact about those bookstores and the buying public: Book sales have either inched up or stayed flat for years now, while the population has continued to grow, meaning that, while publishing houses may be eking out a profit, they’re slowly losing ground in the population as a whole. If nothing else changes, this alone would mean that reading for pleasure (and not for utility — reading signs or documents) will eventually become a minority avocation.

    What you express is actually a factor in these studies. People tend to break into those who are passionate about reading, those who read very little and a great many who don’t read at all. So the readerly sorts look around at their friends and associates and wonder how can this be? Everyone I know has three or four books on their nightstand. It must just be ignorant, poorly educated sorts.

    Actually, although economic class is a huge factor in determining whether a person is a reader, it’s also true that many well-off, well-educated people read little beyond the daily paper (in print or online). And if they’re busy businessmen, maybe a business magazine or two, possibly a non-fiction book. If they’re busy housewives, maybe a bestselling novel, a thriller or romance. The industry knows that the vast majority of fiction readers buy only one or two books each year, and they are inevitably big bestsellers.

    A dedicated reader who takes in fiction, non-fiction, histories, biographies, essay and short story collections — it actually takes a long time for such a person to develop his or her reading habits. Ergo, such people are not all that common.

    Encourage your kids to love reading, and by the time they’re adults, they may be among an odd elite. Crain argues that they won’t necessarily be a “ruling” elite; reading heavily, reading lots of fiction, may be seen as a curious, old-fashioned skill, like scrimshaw or Renaissance dancing. I don’t buy his extreme projection, but his argument is based not just on social studies but on our current understanding of how the brain works, and how we’re not really hard-wired to read.

  • I see your points Mr. Weeks. My wife is an elementary teacher. One of her joys is giving kids a joy of reading. Out of our own funds, we’ve bought many many Caldecott and Newbury books to facilitate that. She’s great about finding creative ways to foster that. The challenge, and it’s a huge one is that the emphasis on testing requires so much time, that it’s really hard to find the time for creativity.

    She says btw, that the best thing to do for your kids is read to them. I did it for years, reading really good books to my boys for years. They love reading today. I think another factor is computers. It’s such a huge time sucker, that the idea of sitting and reading a book seems unappealing to young folks.

    Interesting discussion. I enjoy your BookDaddy blog as well, btw.


  • Thanks for writing (again!). My wife also teaches elementary school, so we’re painfully aware of the distorting burden that No Child Left Behind has put on teaching.

    As for encouraging reading, you might be interested in this earlier post, which started this blog’s discussion about the decline in reading, and which first appeared on BookDaddy.