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What Does It Mean That 1 in 4 Adults Didn’t Read a Book Last Year?

• January 30, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: kennymatic/Flickr)

Those numbers sound way more alarming than they actually are. The bigger problem: the stagnant literacy rate.

Last week, the Pew Research Center released its survey on America’s reading habits. Depending on whom you asked, the survey either exposed the age of illiteracy or revealed the rise of the literati. Those tearing their tunics and pulling their hair bemoaned that 24 percent of adults did not read a single book last year; others sang praises to the heavens that 76 percent of adults still read books.

Almost three-quarters of American adults read at least one book, either print or electronic or audio, in the last year. The typical reader consumed five. E-books are on the rise; audio books are still popular; and even most of those who consume books in alternative formats continue to read printed books. Fifty percent of those surveyed have a tablet or e-reader and 92 percent have a mobile phone.

Our reading habits reflect not only our choices, but also our abilities. More and more, they also reflect our access. Acquiring books, new or used, may seem like an inexpensive venture for most, but for others the cost is prohibitive.

The Pew survey is a fascinating look at how often and by what means we read, though it reveals little about what we actually read. According to Nielson BookScan, the five best-selling books of 2013 were: Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck (the eighth book in the series); Dan Brown’s Inferno; Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s Killing Jesus; Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven; and Rick Riordan’s The House of Hades. Look at Amazon sales, and the list is a little different: Tom Rath’s Strengths Finder 2.0; Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead; Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck; Rush Limbaugh’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures With Exceptional Americans; and Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence.

If we are what we read, then Americans are wimpy, religious, ambitious, self-improving, and patriotic. The specific possibility that the only book any adult read last year was one of the best-selling books on the Nielson or Amazon list is perhaps more disheartening than the shapeless fact that three-quarters of the American population read only one book. But reading is reading, no matter what is read, and the Pew study looks specifically at books when no doubt most of those surveyed read something in the last year, even if it’s wasn’t books.

The availability of well-reported stories and long-form journalism, as well as fiction and poetry, online suggests that our literary diets might have evolved, not become emaciated. A decade ago, you might have heard a story on the news or read an article in your daily newspaper that led you to buy a book on the subject. Now the same tidbit, however you find it, sends you to the Web to find context from many sources and opinions from multiple writers. The deep analysis we associate with books can be found scattered across the Internet like chapters without a binding, an endless collection of ideas that we edit ourselves.

In the past, your collective library could be seen on your shelves and in your loan history at the library. Now it’s in various browser histories, divided between devices, stretched between pages of books, audio files, emails, and PDFs. The complexity of the Pew survey shows how much more difficult it is to track “reading” in the Digital Age.

However, the most critical measure of our reading culture is not necessarily the amount read, in whatever format, but the ability to read. Last April, the United States Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy found that 32 million Americans, or about 14 percent of the population, cannot read, while almost a quarter of American adults read below a fifth-grade level. In fact, literacy rates in America haven’t risen much in two decades.

Those sobering figures complicate whatever judgments we might make about last week’s Pew study. Our reading habits reflect not only our choices, but also our abilities. More and more, they also reflect our access. Acquiring books, new or used, may seem like an inexpensive venture for most, but for others the cost is prohibitive. The free alternatives, public libraries, are chronically underfunded: local branches are closing, while opening hours and staff are increasingly limited. To assume that the 24 percent of adults who did not read a single book last year chose to do so is to ignore the likelihood that some of those surveyed cannot read or could not access a book.

Suppose, though, a sizable portion of those surveyed can read, but don’t, or have access to books, but choose not to read them. Once we’ve funded literacy programs and adequately supported public libraries, then how do we nurture a reading culture?

Some of the specifics of the Pew survey offer ideas; the detailed analysis found that: “Women are more likely than men to have read a book in the previous 12 months, and those with higher levels of income and education are more likely to have done so as well.” Education is critical to cultivating a culture of reading, not only basic literacy, but a love of reading. The so-called “language gap” begins early, some believe as early as the first 18 months of a child’s life, and it only grows. If we truly want a nation of readers, then our conversations about inequality ought to focus on education, not only income.

Casey N. Cep
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She has written for the New Republic, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Paris Review. Follow her on Twitter @cncep.

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