Friday, July 09, 2004

Counting Book Readers

I'm not sure what to make of the new NEA survey heralding a decline in reading.
The survey sample — 17,135 people — makes it one of the largest studies ever conducted on the subject of arts participation, and the data were compared with similar studies from 1982 and 1992. In the literature segment respondents were asked whether they had, during the previous 12 months, without the impetus of a school or work assignment, read any novels, short stories, poems or plays in their leisure time.

Their answers show that just over half — 56.6 percent — read a book of any kind in the previous year, down from 60.9 percent a decade earlier. Readers of literature fell even more precipitously, to 46.7 percent of the adult population, down from 54 percent in 1992 and 56.9 percent in 1982, which means that in the last decade the erosion accelerated significantly.
These numbers strike me as odd, for a couple of reasons. In the first place: I was recently pointed towards a 1999 Gallup Poll lauding "continuing strong American reading habits." The 1999 poll found that 85% of Americans had read a book of any kind in the previous year, and that 55% had read six or more books in the past year. Those results are dramatically at odds with the Census Bureau's report that in 1992 only 60.9% of Americans read a book of any kind in the previous year, and that the percentage has been dropping since. The Times article also cites the Association of American Publisher's report that total sales of "consumer book products" increased 6% worldwide in 2003, a gain mostly attributed to increased sales of e-books and audiobooks. Who's buying all the books, if people have stopped reading?

In the second place: I grew up in a small ex-industrial city with three tiny, poorly stocked bookstores. Today my hometown supports an enormous Barnes & Noble as well as several smaller chains. Lots of small towns can report the same experience. More Americans have access to larger bookstores carrying more titles than ever before. How does the rise of the big-box-booksellers jibe with the supposed decline in reading? Again, from my own experience - when I lived in the suburbs, I could never get a close parking space at the library. My current urban library is always full of people, not just in the video section but deep in the stacks of the Humanities section. When I get on a commuter train in the morning, everyone's reading something. I'm not just talking about my own friends, who are all nerds - it seems to me, from my observation of the general population, that a moderate level of reading is widespread.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden made this point well in a 2001 interview:
What we really have is an immense explosion of options, so that no individual thing is selling nearly as well as the mass-market phenomena of the past. The Gallup Organization has done all these surveys of America's reading habits and established conclusively that despite all the cocktail-party cliches about literacy being on the decline, in fact most Americans are buying more books and reading more books and talking about more books, and generally being more bookish on an overwhelming level than ever before. It's all classes of Americans. It's not just computer books or self-help books or cat books. We're in an absolute commercial explosion of literary publishing. You couldn't have supported a Barnes & Noble the size of Rhode Island at every other suburban intersection thirty years ago.
I'm suspicious of arguments that the majority of people are stupid, uninformed, evil, or immoral, ranged up against a tiny minority of the righteous. In the circles in which I move, the claim that "most people don't read" is often cited as evidence for this worldview. One of the most vicious online arguments I ever had was with a man who maintained that "only one or two percent of Americans read anything at all," and I see that similarly extreme claims have even made it into published books. It's tempting to believe that our culture is going to hell, and that only a fast-diminishing remnant of civilization remains to hold back the outer darkness... I suppose.

So I don't know what to make of the Census Bureau survey.

The word "literature" is repeated so frequently in the New York Times piece about the survey that I begin to be suspicious about its meaning. It's a word with highbrow associations, and I wonder how the average person applies it. If the Census Bureau asks a voracious consumer of Harlequin Romances about her tastes in "literature," will she consider that it applies to her daily reading, or will she deny that she reads any literature at all? My suspicions are bolstered by the fact that the survey found reading to be highly correlated with visiting arts museums and attending performing arts events, and by the quotes from expert commenters. The chair of the NEA refers to "literary readers," not readers. History professor Kevin Starr talks about books in the context of "high culture," and notes that "You can get through American life and be very successful without anybody ever asking you whether Shylock is an anti-Semitic character or whether `Death in Venice' is better than `The Magic Mountain.'" Even before this "decline in reading," more people were reading Stephen King and Barbara Taylor Bradford than exquisite literary classics, and yet that's not the context in which the NEA and the New York Times are discussing the state of American letters.

Of the three books I'm currently reading (Ted Sturgeon's More Than Human, Dorothy Sayers' Busman's Honeymoon, and Anthony Trollope's Framley Parsonage) two are genre fiction (science fiction and mystery), and one is a 19th century novel which, I suppose, I could classify as "literary fiction." I suspect that only the third one counts as "literature" to the Times - I'm not sure about the Census Bureau. That's the only explanation I can think of for the discrepant results - anyone else?