The end of the book in America?

Recently my friend Lily sent me an interesting article about the declining number of book readers in America.

As usual, with an article based on a statistical study, you have to be very careful. As we all know by now, statistics can be made to say anything. Here the author’s premise is fairly straight forward: while the number of American non-readers is increasing at an alarming rate, there is hope since more and more people get a college education these days; better educated people read more, therefore the non-reader trend should reverse in the future.

Studies since 2012 show that about a quarter of Americans don’t even read ONE book a year (here’s the 2012 study, here’s the 2014 one). Is this shocking? Not exactly… If I had to take a guess, I would have said at least 50% of Americans don’t read books, so the actual figure is significantly better than my pessimistic prediction. But then I looked at the questions that were asked in the study.

“During the past 12 months, about how many BOOKS did you read either all or part of the way through?” (my emphasis)

Turd alert! The phrasing of this central question discredits the entire study, at least as applied to the author’s hypothesis. All that the study shows is that 75% of Americans leafed through one or more books last year, not how many of them actually read a book cover to cover.

What the author finds significant is that the number of non-book readers has nearly tripled since 1978. Alarm bells are ringing! The Death of the Book is near! But in the second half of the article the author finds some solace in the fact that the growth of the college-educated population means more and more readers in the future. I wouldn’t be so sure though, considering the number of college educated friends that I have who openly admit to barely reading outside of their professional/academic requirements.

To confirm my fears, the author rolls out another study that found that nearly half of American adults DID NOT read a book for pleasure  last year(my initial guess looks a lot better now). But again, I disagree with the author’s interpretation of the study.

“Most importantly, the percentage of young folks reading for pleasure stopped declining” Indeed, it made a dramatic climb from 51% to 52%! To me that looks more like stagnation than anything else, certainly not enough grounds to proclaim, as the author does in his conclusion that “Perhaps the worst of the fall is over.” Sure, and perhaps finding the cure for HIV is around the corner, but the hard statistics do not support the author’s conclusion, as usual.

From my own observations, Americans seem the least book-friendly nation in the Western world. Walk into a packed Tokyo subway car and you will see dozens of people reading books on their way to work. In fact, books are published in Japan in a special format that can fit inside your pocket, since so many people read on their commute. Stroll though the Quartier Latin in Paris on a weekend and you will find thousands of passers-by crowding the many bookstores along the Boulevard Saint-Germain. But walk into a Barnes and Nobles, and you notice that half the store is devoted to music CDs, DVDs, magazines, even kid toys!

And yet, America publishes the largest amount of new titles every year out of any country in the world at 292,037! This means 1 new title published for every 1068 citizen. Compare to France (41,902 new titles per year): 1 new title for every 1570 citizen or Japan (78,349 new titles per year): 1 new title for every 1629 citizen. Out of any country in the world, only Germany does slighly better than the US, with a near perfect 1 to 1000 ratio. So according to these numbers, the US per-capita totals fare much better than most countries in the world. The conclusion seems inevitable: Americans are among the most avid readers in the world!

What all the studies presented here show is the increasing stratification of US society. A shrinking percentage of the population is very intellectually curious, while a growing percentage finds it very hard to disconnect from the day-to-day reign of useless distractions that we constantly surround ourselves with (sitcoms, soap operas, reality TV, Candy Crusher, Words with Friends, etc…), lest we could become bored and would then be forced to actually start doing some thinking.

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