To Read or Not To Read

November 24, 2007 by Thad McIlroy

My last blog entry referred to a groundbreaking report just issued by IBM on the future of advertising. Also issued this week was a long-awaited report from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), To Read or Not To Read, “the most complete and up-to-date report of the nation’s reading trends and — perhaps most important — their considerable consequences.”

This is a follow-up report to Reading at Risk, a ground-breaking study from the NEA issued in 2004. I cover this report extensively in my section on book publishing.

Quoting from the new report, “The story the data tell is simple, consistent, and alarming. Although there has been measurable progress in recent years in reading ability at the elementary school level, all progress appears to halt as children enter their teenage years. There is a general decline in reading among teenage and adult Americans. Most alarming, both reading ability and the habit of regular reading have greatly declined among college graduates.”

The two reports taken together will change your view of the future of publishing generally, and more specifically of the future of book publishing.

A few key data points:

– Nearly half of all Americans ages 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure.

– The percentage of 18- to 44-year-olds who read a book fell 7 points from 1992 to 2002.

– The percentage of 17-year-olds who read nothing at all for pleasure has doubled over a 20-year period.

– 20% of the reading time of middle and high school students is shared by TV-watching, video/computer game playing, instant messaging, e-mailing or Web surfing.

– Although nominal spending on books grew from 1985 to 2005, average annual household spending on books dropped 14% when adjusted for inflation.

The report is 100-pages long, too long to properly summarize here. It is however available to download without charge. Much of the report covers what the NEA views as the consequences in the decline in reading, including lower levels of academic achievement, decreased performance in the job market and the reduced likelihood to become active in civic and cultural life, most notably in volunteerism and voting. This is outside the direct scope of the future of publishing, although nonetheless provocative. When the most positive expression contained within a report is a prayer that officials will be moved to take action because they’re so upset by the completely bleak implications of the data, you’ve got some troubling information within. Essential reading, assuming you still can!

Note 1: There’s additional data, less alarming in a 2005 Gallup survey noting that “about half of Americans also say they have read more than five books in the past year, not much different from the number reported a decade and a half ago.”

Note 2: In 2012 Pew Internet published a survey called “Younger Americans’ Reading and Library Habits.” It notes that “high schoolers (ages 16-17) and college-aged adults (ages 18-24), along with adults in their thirties, are especially likely to have read a book in the past year, while adults ages 65 and older are the least likely to have read a book in that time span.”

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