Reading Has Fallen on Hard Times

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My days are usually filled to the brim with "have-to's": work, errands, gym (when I'm being "good"), networking (not MySpace, the other kind), eating, and — my all-time favorite — sleep. If there's any time left in the day for leisure activities (a foreign concept to a lot of us), I'll either spend it watching new episodes (or reruns, as is now the case) of The Office, combing through celebrity gossip magazines, or uploading more pictures of myself on Facebook. (Hey, we all need silly ways to decompress). But I only occasionally pick up a book for fun. And when I do, I can only read in small doses — an hour here, forty minutes there — before I get distracted or lose interest. I am literally in the middle of seven different books right now (and let me tell you, it's a joyride trying to keep all the plot facts straight). Apparently, I'm not alone in these habits. According to a new report from the National Endowment for the Arts entitled "To Read or Not to Read," Americans are reading less and less, and less well. And, not surprisingly, the declines in reading have negative civic, social, and economic implications. The report raises interesting questions about the role reading has in our increasingly digital world; and what, if anything, can be done to get people to start reading more. So tell us, have you experienced a waning interest in books and reading? What has taken its place? How much leisure time do you spend reading, on average? And do you feel like something's lost?

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A blogging friend of mine has started a campaign for a Day of Reading on January 10, 2008 in response to the NEA report.

Here is her URL and the post about the initiative:

http://denyingsoccermom.blogspot.com/2007/11/day-to-read.html

As an English teacher and a member of a family of rabid readers, I'm delighted that the issues in the report are being publicized and that there is a swelling response.

Sent by Jennifer Haines | 2:40 PM | 11-29-2007

I feel the reason I do not read as much as I would like is that within the last few years I spend my free time reading emails, surfing the internet, etc. Before I would spend my free time curled up in a comfortable chair with a great book. Also, I see the same trend with highschool/college kids spending time on myface/myspace.

Sent by Sandy | 3:12 PM | 11-29-2007

My bood-reading has skyrocketed with the internet. A book is discussed on NPR, I put it on hold via the library website and don't go to the library till it's there. Beats looking thru' the card catalogue and making a second trip to get the book!

Sent by Andrea Toren | 3:13 PM | 11-29-2007

It is so refreshing to have this type of discussion. As faculty at the university level, the effects of the decline in reading is seen in students across any group. It is seen in how students struggle with writing, how they avoid true literature searches, how they struggle to think beyond basic level of a concept. Their writing is more telegraphic; spelling is more text message. Grading papers can be quite a challenge. Universities are doing their best to address the issue of where students are in their grade/high school learning process, but it is not easy when you are preparing student for the professional and global arena.

Sent by Joyce | 3:23 PM | 11-29-2007

It seems to me that reading levels in the US are more a result of social issues than a cause.

Sent by Eric | 3:24 PM | 11-29-2007

As a promiscuous reader, I am not really impressed with this idea of reading for the sake of reading. As much as I love the sensation of words of any sort passing through my eyeballs, I'm really disturbed by the crap people read. The uneducated, vanity pressings that fill our bookstores at outlandish prices are just unseemly. Literacy is wasted on lies, half-truths, and daydreams.

Sent by pw | 3:24 PM | 11-29-2007

What about the diminishing amount of leisure time that we have in America today? I was an avid reader as a child (in the early 80s) and found that my pleasure reading fell off drastically in Junior High and High School as homework, after-school activities, and the like took up more and more of my time. Kids today are even more innundated with homework, and are pushed to succeed on tests rather than to become well-read.
I'm still a chronic multi-tasker and over-achiever, and that means not very much leisure time for reading. Reading is inherently slow and relaxing -- not at the pace of our current culture. I don't think that digital media has replaced reading nearly so much as a lack of leisure time -- real or perceived -- means less time for reading. Perhaps we shouldn't demonize iPods and instead acknowledge that our culture doesn't value downtime.

Sent by Rebecca L. | 3:27 PM | 11-29-2007

I think one issue that hasn't been discussed is the lack of free time to do "pleasure reading". I currently work 50+ hours a week and I'm the father of two small boys.

Sent by Matthew Demerath | 3:30 PM | 11-29-2007

As a person who doesn't have cable and a student of journalism, I love to read! It is sad that while the technology available nowadays is helpful, it also has become a primary source of entertainment for many-especially the younger set.

While many people I know say they don't have the time to read, they do have the time to sit down and watch all of their missed t.v. shows with Tivo. I think many are plain too lazy to read and would rather watch t.v. or surf on the net! I am glad this is a topic being discussed and hopefully more Americans will start picking up more books!

Sent by Holly Henson | 3:31 PM | 11-29-2007

Reading [fiction/non-fiction] and "writing" go hand in hand.

It is really disconcerting to see how people seem not to have the ability nor probably the interest to even spell correctly, when posting on the forum of their choice.

In a society where many people in the workforce can't read nor write, they can't understand the work instructions.
Even a significant number of college graduates appear to have problems in that arena, as I have noticed.

It is difficult to draw any conclusions from all of this, but it does not seem to bode well for us in the USA in comparison with populations in other parts of the globe.

Sent by Herman van Ooijen | 3:32 PM | 11-29-2007

I lived in London, England from 1987-1988, and I remember getting on the Tube and seeing most people reading a newspaper. At the news stand, most people would buy 2-3 different newspapers, and if I recall correctly, London at that time had 5 newspapers in excess of one million in circulation. Today I take the train to work and I would say 80% or more of the people on the train do not read. They have on headsets instead. Certainly then (and probably now) Londoners read more than people here, and I am wondering if that is still the case.

Sent by Lori | 3:34 PM | 11-29-2007

What a sad finding! I must say that after graduating college almost three years ago {I'm 25}, I almost went crazy as far as reading goes... Wait, I can read anything I'd like now without the purpose of studying...?? The library became my new friend, lending me books about knitting, gardening, wine, the classics, and anything else I suddenly had the freedom to learn about.

Anyway, while this is discouraging news, I'm sure there are many people in this generation who will be sure to raise their kids on books--my husband and I are definitely in that group! I also think that more people, especially girls and women, are going back to the more old-fashioned/hands-on activities, which is interesting... I guess reading isn't among these, but maybe soon it will be. {Tangent: A friend my age and I went to Starbucks to knit and converse over coffee, and one of the baristas also our age ran over to tell us she was in a knitting group nearby. Who knew? They pop out of the woodwork, which is fun and surprising.}

I probably read a book to two books a month, and they range from non-fiction to fiction. Even my husband, who is an engineer, has gotten more into reading, mostly if it's sci-fi in nature. :)

Personally, I think the digital age has increased my admiration for books--I love being able to hold a work of art and knowledge without the tiring florescent glare.

Sent by Mindy Christiansen | 3:35 PM | 11-29-2007

I've noticed that although I do read less actual paper books, I still read quite a bit of fiction -- either online or with my cell phone via http://www.tx2ph.com

With the latter thing, I can devote every spare minute to reading -- on the bus or at the queue in the grocery store. Can't say it's as enjoyable as lying in a bed with a book and a cup of tea, but at least I read new things.

Sent by Xipe Totec | 3:36 PM | 11-29-2007

I still love to read, and I read mainly fiction. I have to read a lot of non-fiction for work, and it's fine but it doesn't stimulate my imagination the way fiction does. When a fiction author says someone was "wearing a red shirt", no two people are going to imagine the same shade of red. When the author describes a place, the way I imagine that place is going to be different from yours. I didn't have TV growing up in the Caribbean, books brought the world to me and my sister. We got books for birthdays and Christmas and we are still both avid readers today.

Sent by Carline Watson | 3:37 PM | 11-29-2007

People make time for what is important to them.

Sent by katherine putney | 3:37 PM | 11-29-2007

I appreciate your program covering 'reading' but I'm only half-'listening' because I'm working so I haven't heard if anyone has brought up the fact that many folks today can not 'write' nor can they 'talk', well, well!
So much written today is so poorly composed...in business emails, documents, newspapers and magazines, etc.
Have schools dropped writing requirements?

Sent by sandy stone | 3:40 PM | 11-29-2007

our retired family of two has managed to accumulate over 700 BOOKS. we feel we must personally be keeping Borders in business. we read technical & resource books; science fiction, mystery, recipe books, etc. BUT it is scary to think of a world without people who can read: who is going to stop for those STOP signs?

Sent by Aleta Files | 3:43 PM | 11-29-2007

How lucky for me that I am one of the few that enjoys reading. The only type of book I don't read are romance novels or self-help books. How sad that our schools no longer provide students with the joy of reading. Reading opens the door to human possibilities. This is just another example of how Americans are allowing themselves to be "dumbed down." While I enjoy movies and "some" television I read read 3-4 new books a week and re-read many of my favorites during any given week. I would rather read a book than eat, work on the computer or talk on the phone. Reading fuels the imagination and the heart. America - read a book!

Sent by Delilah Lyon Brock | 3:44 PM | 11-29-2007

This topic and the $188 laptop are so-o-o-o interconnected it's almost funny (NOT!)
Why read?
The DVD speaks, the computer CAN speak.
You use "pictures" to interact with your virtual friends.
And U typ n sum shrthnd code, so U cn txt yr BFF ASAP!
And you wonder why Johnnie STILL can't read his english assignments.

Sent by Harold | 3:47 PM | 11-29-2007

Even in a age of the 60 hour work week, the internet and cable HD, bad music and 24 hour sports we can still take time out to read. I read an hour at night before bed and an hour in the morning (so I got to get up an hour earlier, big deal). Reading allows us to engage in conversation with someone besides ourselves and to do so in a quiet way that allows us to form our own thoughts.

Many people never read unless under duress. They rob themselves of a context to put their world and their experience of it into. They usually fall victim to a Bill O'Reilly or a Rush Limbaugh.

Sent by George from Oregon | 3:48 PM | 11-29-2007

I am a children's librarian at a public library, and have noticed that many elementary students come in with reading assignments based on a program called Accelerated Reader. This is a program which rates books according to a formula for reading level. Students read books within a range for their reading level, and after reading the book, take a quiz and earn points. These points often figure into the student's reading grade.

If I try to promote a book for which the student's school does not have a quiz, I rarely have success in getting the child to take that book. This is particularly a problem for children who read far above grade level. School libraries do not often have high-school level quizzes at the elementary school.

The other issue is that while the AR levels measure the difficulty of the vocabulary, they do not measure the diffuculty of the concepts. So, a book which is rated at 4th grade reading level, may in fact have concepts that are appropriate for middle school or higher social development.

By making so many students read for points, rather than for pleasure, we make reading a chore early on, and may be turning off the very children we are trying to turn on!

Sent by Wilma Flanagan | 3:54 PM | 11-29-2007

The average American reads two books in his/her lifetime.

This is information I learned when I was starting college forty years ago. It was, of course, mind-boggling. No doubt it is no longer the same.

Per lifetime, not per year! You set that against some of us who read a book every week or two, and it makes you start working the arithmetic. Lots and lots of people actually succeeded in reading, from start to finish, one or no books in their entire life! How empirically based was this? I don't remember. But you think about it. How about all those kids you never really got to know at all? Who seemed like they really didn't know much of anything?

It set me thinking about all those "average" kids who had graduated from high school with me. Not to mention forty years ago. (Oh yes, it was very high then too. It just wasn't seen as a problem - they were slated to be laborers. Since we were officially a classless society, they were then politely forgotten.)

So, um, anyway. How many books does the average American read in his/her lifetime this year? I wasn't tuned in, and I missed that part of the program

Sent by davy B | 3:55 PM | 11-29-2007

addendum: I meant, "Not to mention all the kids who dropped out way before graduation time. Many of them were still approved to go to work for family or self-support, and others were transient." They were the forgotten, invisible non-class in our classless society. (Ironically, a similar proportion of them actually read some books too.)

Sent by davy B | 4:17 PM | 11-29-2007

Reading is not and never has been a "popular" activity. Its a form of recreation that takes not only time, but effort. Even the trashiest romance novel takes time to actually read.

And with so many new choices for our decreasing leisure time, is it any wonder that people read less?

As for myself, I get to read 50 books a year because I take an express bus from the suburbs to downtown and get to read on that trip there and back. It's a habit I am loath to break and when I do need to drive into work, I resent the loss of reading time.

Sent by Paul | 4:20 PM | 11-29-2007

I'd like to address two points.

First, my mother teaches elementary school, and her district uses Accelerated Reader (AR). This has advantages as well as the disadvantages that the librarian points about above. First, the children in my mother's class enjoy reading the AR books, so they do not seem to regard it as a chore done for points. It's a program that seems to work best for younger children reading shorter books. I remember similar programs when I was a kid 20 years ago, and I needed no encouragement to read, as I loved it, but it made me feel proud to receive recognition. Second, AR asks questions reading comprehension about the books, which forces the children to actually assimilate the meaning of the sentences and the content, not to just sound out the words without understanding. Sadly, not as many children as is desirable have parents who will read with them every night and ask questions (this is first and second graders' "homework"--read for 20 minutes), so AR fills some of this gap. Teachers do reading groups, but inevitably kids will also have to read on their own. Perhaps for librarians with kids reluctant to read non-AR books, the kids could be encouraged to ask for recognition from the teacher outside of the AR program. Here, in the youngest grades, it isn't AR points that give them a grade (in fact, they get Needs Improvement, Satisfactory, and Outstanding), it's their teacher's wholistic evaluation, which naturally incorporates programs like AR but which is not dependent on it.

Second, as TA teaching college students I noticed a connection between not reading and not writing very well. I decided this was because students who don't read regularly (they will tell you so) don't have much exposure to examples of good writing or a variety of styles of writing. They don't have an "ear" for what sounds good, and this is hard to grade. A sentence may be gramatically correct, but it may make no logical sense or may just "sound bad." Trying to quantify these aspects of students' writing in the grading process is a challenge. They also often resorted to cliches, either because they thought cliches are there to be used or because it was quicker and easier than developing their own thoughts on a subject and expressing them in their own style. So, reading not only helps people be better readers, but it makes them better writers, and if you are by chance a good writer today, you WILL stand out in a college class.

Clearly the internet and TV--and recreational text-messaging, I suppose--have taken much time away from reading. Also, as a society, we seem not to value leisure time as much. When I was in Paris last year, it was striking to me how many Parisians were just hanging out in public places with a book. In America, I'd be less surprised to see people sitting on a bench with a portable DVD player. We're very dependent on a screen for entertainment and stimulation, and I think this is not so good for our society, culture, and intellectual development. But, it's inescapable, no one is forcing us not to read. We read less because we choose it.

Sent by L. Addison | 4:27 PM | 11-29-2007

I had two thoughts --
First, determining cause and effect from pure statistics is difficult. In the case of reading, I know that a lack of reading practice does no favors for one's comprehension, but I think the lack of comprehension (and difficulty decoding) makes reading tedious and a chore, rather than a pleasure. It becomes a downward spiral. Schools are doing a better job than ever of teaching basic decoding skills, but I think we have yet to implement across the board a system that teaches good comprehension skill, at least in the school where I teach.

Second, I wonder about the comparisons to previous generations. I think this is really the first time in history that we truly expect universal literacy. As another person comments above, even in the previous half-century, many students who read little just dropped through the cracks, or graduated anyway and worked at jobs that required little reading. We are sending more young people to college than ever before, so it is not surprising that the average skill level is dropping.

Having said that, I think reading should be given more respect! I can identify strongly with the caller who said she was worried that even her teaching colleagues disliked reading. As a high school teacher, I too have heard that comment...and I wonder how we can change children's habits when the adults around them do not "buy in."

Sent by Carol | 5:29 PM | 11-29-2007

As I told my daughter, (when she was struggling with learning to read). If you learn to read, you can find a book that will teach you how to do ANYTHING you want to do. She first learned to read with Garfield. Crazy, I know, but she WANTED to read after that! Now, she reads for school AND personal pleasure.

Generally, people need some kind of motivation to do anything. "Self-Starters" have the ambition to motivate themselves. Everyone else needs a push!

Written language sparked "the dawn of history" as we know it. Want to leave a message to someone (2000 years from now?) You'll have to write it! (You can't speak into a bottle and press "save".)

Islamists want to keep young girls from going to school, so they can't read. Teaching slaves to read was a crime. Nazis burned books, so you couldn't read them. With examples like these, why would anyone not WANT to read?
Freedom of the press exists so people can read about politics, events and the opinions of others.

Sent by Harold | 5:44 PM | 11-29-2007

As my friend mention, we're starting a Day to Read campaign for all of those who find their reading time is consumed by emails, blogs and other electronic media. We were inspired by the newspaper coverage of the NEA report.

Sent by Allison | 7:29 PM | 11-29-2007

Reading is without a doubt my favorite hobby, so much so that my girlfriend often chides me about it. It is not uncommon for me to have a book with me even while watch television so that I might squeeze in a page or two during commercials. I attribute my love of books primarily to my parents. As a young child, my parents read to me nearly every night before bed, and once I was able to read on my own, I took to it voraciously. Living only a couple blocks from the local public library, my mom would take my brother and me at least once a week. She enrolled us in their summer reading programs when school wasn't in session. Our time with television and video games was limited; not only to make sure that we read, but also to get us outside and playing with our fellow neighbor kids. One of the problems I see with generations younger than my own is that parents are not taking as active a role in raising their own children. They use television and video games as babysitters. Instead of a bedtime story, children have televisions in their rooms and are put to sleep every night by their favorite movies.

Today's media-centered society does not challenge children to use their imagination like books do, which ultimately has a negative effect on children. That's not to say that media is the problem; in my own experience it can be a springboard into the world of reading. After the movie Jurassic Park came out, I soon after read the original novel by Michael Crichton, and I must have reread it half a dozen times throughout grade school and high school. I didn't read Lord of the Rings until I had heard that movies were being made, and it became one of my favorite books of all time. Others of my favorite books are set in the same universe as the Star Wars movies. However, balance and moderation of interests and media sources is critical to a passion for literacy, and I believe that this is ultimately something that is taught by and observed from parents and those closest to a developing child.

Sent by Colin | 10:16 AM | 11-30-2007

We read MORE than ever and we encourage our child to as well. The three of us read every day.
I believe a decline in reading has to do with a significant loss of downtime. If you can't get away from work, how can you get into a book.

Sent by Jyllian | 10:33 AM | 11-30-2007

Recently our teacher (yes, I am in high school) asked what we would do if deprived of all electronic items. I replied that I would go buy some candles and matches and read. The only thing I would miss is the cutoff from a near-infinite amount of reading material within a 10-pound package. More than half of the class said they would "die" for lack of myspace, cellphones, e-mail, instant messaging, and other mediums of communication. This, incidentally, is one of the problems I believe this civilization faces: that people fill all time by just getting informed. Yes, I use the computer. I have not watched television for at least the past 5 years; I watch movies only when they come out on DVD so that I get time to read associated books first. But, most of all, I read.

I'm not entirely sure why I like reading so much - my parents did emphasize education, and we had books in the house, but my younger sister is just like her classmates, a vapid, popular girl. So I'm not sure it's entirely the parenting.

Besides, what is freedom of the press if nobody can take the time to read what the press turns out?

Sent by Elaine | 8:34 PM | 11-30-2007

On one level, my situation is quite similar with another commentator here. Internet discussions of books on many portals, especially amazon.com has flamed the reading passions in me.

Actually, I have always been very interested in the reading habits of people. Not long ago, I wondered in one of my blog (my blog address is http://emberglow.wordpress.com) posts, what makes ''mushy best sellers'' tick? Later on I was to conclude that it must be girls. Most of the girls I know online and offline read like maniacs. And yes, they read mostly fiction, and much of it is fantasy and romance. My personal nosy inquiries into their reading habits revealed that they are the ones who make millionaires out of writers like Nicholas Spark, Janet Evanovich, Danielle Steele etc. I also noted- much to my surprise- that most girls and women are huge fans of horror genre; Stephen King, Dean Koontz etc.

Not just to confirm other NPR article- I would admit I have strong desire to read non-fiction apart from fiction. I also read heaps on the internet as I like to read international news and newspapers like New York Times which I do not get here in New Zealand libraries.

I think generally women read to get those fuzzy feelings and guys read to be informed or something that inspires, motivates them or helps them make practical decisions in life. I am not being sexist, even the NPR article talks a lot about our brain being wired a certain way.

This gender related divide is not only reflected in our reading habits but also writing styles. Men and women write differently. This is true even with the newspaper columnists. At New York Times, equally reputed columnists write differently. For example, you may Contrast Maureen Dowd with Thomas L. Friedman or Nicholas D. Kritof. :-)

Sent by Ember | 12:10 AM | 12-3-2007

I actually love to read, it is one of my favorite activities. But I also don't watch much tv (which probably makes me weird). I think that a lot of people, like you mentioned, choose television over books. It is not always that there is no leisure time for people to read, but that people are more likely to watch a tv show than pick up a book.

Sent by megan | 5:55 PM | 1-2-2008

As a school librarian, I continue to see a decline in the reading skills of high school students. The impact it has on their learning and self-esteem is horrific- nevermind the impact and roll-over responsibilities it places on educators, school budgets and learning expectations.

If you are a parent of a young child, do not plug them in to tv, dvd, video, or a computer and neglect reading. Let their little learning brains grab and process print, pictures, words and text. So much can impact development in the early years. Nurture and encourage their minds to grow and develop and learn to read. It is a life-long gift.

Sent by Leslie | 7:38 PM | 1-25-2008

I had to add something to this grave discussion about our society's big handicap of not reading enough at all and how it is reflected in our expressing ourselves with the written word.
A day in my recent past, our computer went kaputt. I mean, we were entirely out of the usage of it for what maybe two weeks. Well, I got to reading and writing letters to family.
I noticed something changed in my life instantly. Because I was reading great literature at the time, I had to be vigilant to notice each and every little detail of the author's message. Not let anything slip so to speak.
Anyway, one day I noticed that I caught more as to how things were in the real world and payed more attention to the details, almost effortlessly, I'd be conscious of more. As if the world were in technicolor and I'd been used to seeing the world on black and white. Amazing!
Anyway, I am saddened that our youth are not reading as much as they used to. I'm middle age and read a lot however find it difficult to finish a book from front to back.
I am inspired by this article to read more and encourage my daughter to read more, thank goodness she's only 10. There's still time!
Anyway, thanks to the authors of this radio program for opening my eyes up to wanting to share the joys of reading while there's still time. From now on I will make it a point of reading in public places more, just as they do in London and in Paris, perhaps I'll start a trend. Oh, I'll have to dye my hair first.

Sent by Ted Hinshaw | 2:21 AM | 5-28-2008

First off: I'd like to note that, as far as I know, I'm the first teenager to post to this discussion. Secondly, I most definitely believe that in my age group few people read regularly, and those who do read quite a lot. It seems to me that this is creating a large gap between those who read regularly and those who don't, and that it is creating an elitist group of regular readers. I don't know what to think of this and I don't know whether or not this has always been the case throughout history; it certainly is an interesting phenomenon.

Sent by Miles S. | 4:17 AM | 6-8-2008

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