A new poll says people are still reading

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A new Gallup poll summarized by Art Swift and Steve Ander shows the following:

  • 35% say they read more than 11 books in the past year
  • 53% of young adults read between one and 10 books in the past year
  • 73% prefer printed books to e-readers or audio books

According to Swift and Ander, “Despite the abundance of digital diversions vying for their time and attention, most Americans are still reading books. In fact, they are consuming books at nearly the same rate that they were when Gallup last asked this question in 2002.”

Writers’ magazines love including essays with titles like “Death of the Novel.” While it’s true that most commercial magazines no longer carry serialized novels or short fiction, bricks and mortar stores and online booksellers are still moving books into people’s hands and hearts. And just type the words “book blog” into a search engine and look at the number of hits. A lot of people are talking about books.

galluppollSome say the business is easier for authors these days because we’re not shackled to BIG PUBLISHERS, some of whom won’t even consider a book unless it can sell 50,000 copies. So we self-publish and bring out our books through smaller publishers. Unfortunately, our main sources of editorial reviews have declined so there are fewer ways for new and so-called “midlist” authors to reach the public’s consciousness. It wasn’t too many years ago that solid newspaper review sections were written by local editors and staff writers, and–in addition to mainstream authors–covered local and regional authors as well as metro bookstore readings and signings.

In spite of that, readers are finding books. It’s a pity so many of them rely on Amazon and that so many of them think books ought to be free or nearly free. I often argue in this blog that while it’s true that a Kindle file doesn’t have the physical costs behind it that a hardcover book has, it still represents (possibly) a year or so of the author’s life in addition to the expense of editors, cover designers, proofreaders and publicists. As authors, we’re not selling the file: we’re selling what’s in it.

I still prefer printed books because I like the art and craft of them and find them easier to read in bed, in a car, on a bus, on the beach. Plus, I stare at a screen all day, so the last thing I want to do when I relax with a good book is stare at another screen. But that’s me. Reading from a screen is better than not reading. And, as we’re hearing, audiobooks are doing a lot better than most of us would have guessed if we’d been asked about their future ten years ago.

One positive note in this year’s survey over the one done in 2002 comes from the fact older Americans are reading more books than they used to. The poll doesn’t say why, but I like the increase in the numbers. Another thing I can’t tell from the poll is whether (or if) avid readers skew the numbers, making the averages look better than they are. Comparing notes at the end of 2016, another writer and I figured we read almost one book a week. So, do my 52 books per year counteract the answers from 51 people who didn’t read at all? In changing McCoy’s of Star Trek line, my response to that is, “Jim, I’m not a mathematician, I’m just a country storyteller.”

Yes, arts/humanities education is suffering

Every year, I read that one school system or another has further diluted the classroom hours devoted to the arts, what we used to get in courses labeled “Art” and “English” and, sometimes, “Humanities.” This introduction to books and other arts seems indispensable if we want a nation of informed readers, so it’s a pity we’re losing it. I wish those who have national platforms (talk show hosts, actors, singers) would talk about the value of reading. When Oprah’s show was going strong, she did a lot for the country’s authors because she had a popular platform. We need more of that, I think, before diminished exposure to the arts in school finally impacts a future Gallup poll.

Like the long-time literacy-based organization says, Reading is Fundamental. It’s sobering to see on their website that 93 million Americans can’t read well enough “to contribute successful in society.” For people who can’t negotiate all the forms, signs, jobs, news sources and other writing they require for day to day for basic needs, books aren’t even on the radar. I think we need to understand why this is the case before we understand why reading ten or eleven books per year is a pitifully low number for our national average even though the poll says things haven’t gotten worse.

When I served as a literacy volunteer between college and military service, I thought the need was incomprehensibly large and that progress seemed so slow at times, it was like trying to empty the ocean with a thimble. Yet, we can’t stop, can we? I’d like to see a Gallup poll that shows more people not only know how to read, but are reading more books and magazines as well.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical, paranormal, contemporary fantasy and satire novels and and short stories. You can learn more about them on his website here.

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