Looking more closely at the numbers from that "The Next Time Someone Tells You Internet Killed Reading, Show Them This Chart" story...

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Summary: Is reading in decline? Maybe. It really depends on who you ask, which metrics you use, and so forth. One popular article suggests it is all hullabaloo, but fails to point out the rest of the story.

BLOT: (08 Apr 2012 - 02:59:07 PM)

Looking more closely at the numbers from that "The Next Time Someone Tells You Internet Killed Reading, Show Them This Chart" story...

I have seen it from a few few friends and a few tweeps, an excited smile as they share it, "The Next Time Someone Says the Internet Killed Reading Books, Show Them This Chart". What does the chart show? More than ever before, people responded in the affirmative to the question, "Are you reading a book right now?" 47% said "yes", while the next highest was 37%, back in 1990, and with the exception of a 1952 slump, every year in the past was slightly lower, culminating in a somewhere around 22% pre-1960 average. The message is clear, right? Books are on the up, cries of anti-intellectualism are false, and it is time to party in our more enlightened than any previous age age! It is a perfect balm to such statistics as "1 in 4 Americans read no book last year".

Except, as a reader, I recognized one truth right off the bat: "Are you currently reading a book?" is meaningless. Who hasn't started a book or two and then let it sit, for days or weeks or months, in some unfinished state? How long have they been reading the book? Is this someone picking up a copy of Neal Stephenson's Anathem and thumbing through it a bit every night for a nine-month period? Is this a person burning through a Harlequin Romance in a week? Is this a person who has some mass-market paperback, spine up and pages splayed, on the back of a toilet with a page dedicated to each instance of "me time"? An audiobook that they take in half-hour slices every time they drive to work and back?

I come from a family of highly mixed reading ability and desire, but I bet if you were to ask the question, nearly all would say that they were reading a book at this time. Just in some this means the first of the year and for others this means the thirtieth. For some it means a trashy novel, and for others it is book on calculus. In fact, a more distracted society, one in which book reading is less of an all-at-once activity and more of a "every night, a few minutes before bed", might lead to the exact increase reported in the chart, even though overall book-engagement is down.

Let's look more closely at the poll he references. First off, note that the poll is seven years old. Pre-tablet, pre-[popular as a way of life-]smartphone, pre-[widespread-]ereader1, pre-[widespread-]Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-Pinterest. 2005 was back when a person could reasonably be expected to have a handle over most of the current memes and chaos of the Internet. Lolcats were a year off. "Numa Numa" had just started to go big. Get what I'm saying? By today's standards, that version of the 'Net was a static place. Youtube was still a start-up. Internet's impact on reading then versus now is a potential an apples-to-oranges sort of thing.

Secondly, let's look at all the other numbers. There is a chart listing number of books read in the last year: none, 1-6, 6-10, 11-50 [huge jump], 51+. Looking at those [which have the benefit of being closer in years and being more generally recent] suggests that at each subsequent poll taken, the shift has been from reading a lot of books to reading fewer. Decided to make a chart of my own, in which I show that while the number of people who have read no books has started to drop back down from a high [as of 2005], in every other group, the number of people who have read less of larger quantities [larger being more than 1] have all increased:

To a degree, the author of the article's focus on whether or not this equates quality has taken away from the real issues of his statistics, amount of slack in reading time [i.e., time spent distracted from the "book currently being read"] and the number of books this adds up to when looked in a 12-month period.

But is it doom and gloom? Not necessarily.

Publishing reports show a general increase in all book sales except mass-market2. In some categories more than others, but still we are looking at increases over 20%. Sure part of that is book prices being up (but not 20% up), and sure part of the increase in children's ebook sales is going to be non-young-adults buying digital copies of young-adult books in something like a housewife reading a bodice-ripper via her iPhone, but that still isn't accountable for all. America is spending more on books. And this trend has been around for at least a couple of years.

Look at movies from recent years. A number of huge titles are [comic]book-to-screen adaptations: Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Twilight, Batman, the various Marvel big box office draws, Sherlock Holmes. This says nothing about reading levels or reading amounts, but it suggests that the printed page helps to stir up some big business.

And while there has been an assumption of a general decline in library usage, there have been bright spots in which libraries have reported upswings. In the 2011 State of the Libraries Report [2012 should be out in a couple of days, but not yet], the findings are the libraries are still valued, still being used, and are still having an impact on everyday life both, but are getting less money and are considered by budgeters to be an easier cut.

And this lattermost idea is why I can't blame Alexis Mardrigal for jumping on the positive trend in that 7-year-old Gallup poll. You keep hearing about a dumber, less literary America and some big decisions are being made around this assumption, even though harder numbers not relying on which 5000 people picked up their phone in the middle of the day suggests that it is premature at best and false at worst. My gut tells me that books are less important to your average person, right now, with a bit of skewing being generated by hot-button-titles like the various young adult explosions going on. That even when book sales are up, and library use is up, the identification as a dedicated reader is down. I assume, based purely on anecdotal evidence, that people take longer to read books, are more likely to consider books too expensive compared to equally priced DVDs [even though movies have less value per hour spent enjoying them], and are more prone to focus on titles that have already shown to be popular rather than trust their own instincts and serendipity as much. These are assumptions on my part, mind, and I might be way off, but books have more competition than ever before and competition breeds tribes, and tribes get fired up. This could go either way.

1: Though research suggests e-Readers read more than p-Readers.

2: What's more, the ebooks that are blamed for the loss of mass-market sales show a 30-million dollar increase while mass-markets were only down by about 9-million-dollars.



Written by Doug Bolden

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