The place where I work held a team-building event which included an afternoon of snowshoeing with a guide. When the guide asked us to introduce ourselves, she also asked us for the name of a book we’d especially enjoyed reading in the previous year. Eleven out of the fourteen women in the group asked if they could name a television show instead because they hadn’t read a book in the previous year.
As a writer, I live in a reading ghetto. I correspond with and meet people who love books. People who belong to book clubs. People who use their library cards so often they actually have to replace them. People with TBR (to-be-read) piles higher than their beds. People who own more books than I do—though looking around my living room I’m not convinced that’s architecturally possible.
When I step outside the ghetto, say to go to a sporting event or to the mall, the numbers tell a very different story.
According to a United States Census Bureau, 2002 study:
• Less than half of the U.S. adult population reads literature.
• Between 1982 to 2002 the U. S. population increased by 40 million people; pleasure readers decreased by 19%. This was a 4% decline between 1982 and 1992 and a 14% decline between 1992 and 2002.
• When asked the following question, “In the past 12 months, did you read any novel, short story, poem or play that wasn’t for a school or work assignment?”
◦ In the 18-to-24-year-old group, in 1982, 59.8% said yes, and in 2002, 42.8% said yes
◦ In the 25-to-34-year old group, in 1982, 62.1% said yes; 2002, 47.7% said yes
Keep in mind two things about that last question. First, any reading at all qualified for a “yes” answer. So if a guy read a poem at his best bud’s wedding, but read nothing else in the entire year, he got to say “yes.” Second, those people in the 25-to-34 age group are the parents of the next non-book-reading generation.
Admittedly, those stats are five years old, but have things improved? Likely not.
Women, who read at all, spend 16.6 minuts a day reading books; men, who read at all, spend 8.8 minutes a day reading books.
~Ball State University's Center for Media Design, 2005 study
Take this little test yourself.
1) If you commute, how many people on the train or bus read novels as they travel?
2) In your office, how many people spend part of their lunch hour reading a novel?
3) If you’re in the checkout line in a grocery store, drug store, or Wal-Mart—all of which sell novels—how many people in line with you are buying novels?
4) The next time you visit a chain bookstore, look at what percentage of their floor space is devoted to non-reading items such as gifts, lifestyle items, or the coffee bar.
5) Ask your library what percentage of their budget, and their space, is devoted to non-book items. Many libraries have passed the 50/50 balance point. Their boards have decided to allot more than 50% of their budgets, space, and services to supporting non-book items.
Fiction writers are story-tellers. It may well be that those of us writing in 2005 are the last generation of book readers and book writers. To keep being published, we are also learning to be the first generation of multi-media writers. So-called talking-books have been around for a long time, though it’s only in the past decade that this format has broken out of its own “for visually impaired” ghetto to reach the general public. If we can do audio books, why not video books? And hand-held readers? And iPod books? And pod cast books, which the reader could hear a chapter at a time, like the old movie serials? And downloaded books? And read-on-line books? And read-this-chaper-and-vote-what-should-happen-next books? It’s going to be interesting to see how the media used to present stories will eventually change the stories themselves.