Friday, November 30, 2007

A Country of Book Buyers Who Don't Read. Huh?

The country is either morphing into illiterates, or we are collectively obsessed with books.

The New York Times recently reported, “The National Endowment for the Arts delivered the sobering news that Americans — particularly teenagers and young adults — are reading less for fun. At the same time, reading scores among those who read less are declining, and employers are proclaiming workers deficient in basic reading comprehension skills.”

Meanwhile, Mediabistro adds, “The Association of American Publishers released its latest figures on book sales: an increase of 5.7 percent for the month of September, and yearly sales maintaining their climb with an increase of 9.9 percent.”

The folks at Reuters pass on results of a study showing, “Reading tops the list of favorite leisure-time activities, but it does not seem to be as popular among Americans as in previous years.”

And the Seattle-Post Intelligencer not too long ago, said, “Not only are teen book sales booming ....but the quality is soaring as well. Older teens in particular are enjoying a surge of sophisticated fare as young adult literature becomes a global phenomenon.”
So what's with the NEA's gloomy "news"?

A fellow blogger (sorry can’t remember who at the moment, but if it comes to me, I’ll update) adroitly notes that most polls, book-purchasing tabulations, surveys and other measuring devices only look at the reading Americans do in their leisure time, and don’t take into account the heavy amount of reading done in the workplace, on college campuses, or otherwise related to professional or student life.

Yes, reading is a bona fide “leisure time activity” for many (probably for you, who is just now reading a blog about writing!). But reading also permeates the average American’s life as a tool – to access entertainment or information.

If your high-schooler spent four hours this week reading The Things They Carried – why doesn’t that count? Because it’s required and not strictly leisure reading? If you spent most of last evening re-reading Beowulf to prep for teaching a unit on British lit, why would the pollsters not include that time as reading? My cousin who works in truck scheduling, pores over Commercial Carrier Journal at her desk at lunch time. Is that reading?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for reading as a pastime, a hobby, an obsession, an incurable compulsion; reading as therapy, escape, enlightenment and intellectual discourse. Reading because you love words, ideas, and how a favorite “leisure time” author plays with words. I want everyone to read to learn, feel, think and engage. But even when one reads because one “has to,” I for one, still think that should count.

Come to think of it…if the Kindle catches fire, will time spent with books that way count as reading? Or will it come under the heading, using a hand-held mobile electronic device?

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