Reading Between the Lines

When I read about the November 19, 2007 NEA study (“To Read or Not to Read”) concerning the reading habits of Americans I had two reactions:

First, I shook my head and chuckled. Of course Americans read less than they did a generation ago. Of course we’re spending less money on books. Can someone please tell me why I did not apply for a grant to study the reading habits of Americans? Much like the study that concluded that rich people get better health care, the results of NEA’s reading study are no surprise. Have a look at the New York Times’s list of bestselling books. Publishers print and market what they hope will be big sellers. Many newspapers have dumbed down editorial content, lost sight of editorial standards (the New York Times’s front page editorial mea culpas come to mind), and some have sold their editorial souls in search of advertising dollars. Why, in short, should people be expected to read uninspiring/uninteresting books, newspapers and magazines? Just because someone wants us to buy them?

My second thought was that the changes in reading habits just may have something to do with literacy rates. In 1870, the literacy rate was 80 percent. A generation ago, grandparents could easily have not finished high school. Today, we have a 99 percent literacy rate. On the surface, it looks laudable. However, according to the 2003 National Assessment of Literacy, 30 million adult Americans have limited literacy skills, and 63 million adults have only basic literacy skills.

American adults can read and write, but tens of millions only with difficulty.

As a society, what can we do to encourage reading? According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, American children and adolescents spend between 22 and 28 hours a week watching television. That doesn’t mean that television is inherently bad. At our house we watch a movie once a week together as a family, and enjoy some homemade pizza. (Ask my kids how entertaining I can be when the pizza sticks to the pan, and has to be chiseled out!). Once in a while, we will watch an episode or two of “The Simpson’s” with our sons (10 and 7). We deconstruct third-grader Bart Simpson’s escapades, Dad Homer’s get-rich-quick schemes, and second-grader Lisa’s love of learning. The episodes have led to chats about profanity, school, teachers, classmates, friendship and religion.

To be sure, American adults read less, because there is more to read. In June of 2007, AOL surveyed 4,000 Internet users about their use of email. A whopping 43 percent of respondents said they bring their Blackberrys or handhelds to bed with them at night so they can check email. The average email user checks her/his five times per day. The spam/virus crusaders at McAfee did a study of 1,500 online participants and found that respondents, when not reading legitimate emails, were spending tons of time deleting unwanted emails….about three and a half hours per week, to be exact, or 7.5 days per year.

So what’s the answer? Why not share with me what you’re reading at the moment (I’m rereading Bram Stoker’s Dracula.), and what you think would get Americans reading more!

Listen to my blog entry here.

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