Friday, June 29, 2018

WaPo: "Leisure reading is at an all-time low"--but what's left out?

The Washington Post reports that "Leisure reading in the U.S. is at an all-time low," which is one more piece of news that doesn't sound good for the humanities.  It's a good piece overall, and the main part is this:
That steep drop means that aggregate reading time among Americans has fallen, from an average of 23 minutes per person per day in 2004 to 17 minutes per person per day in 2017.
Even prior to 1995, before computers/online entertainment/social media took a huge share of the market, reading levels were declining due to TV.

But I wondered about this:
"Numbers from the National Endowment for the Arts show that the share of adults reading at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the prior year fell from 57 percent in 1982 to 43 percent in 2015." 
  • Is this the only kind of reading that counts?  What about nonfiction--history, biographies, even true crime?  Is the NEA counting airport novels and things like that?
  • Are they counting listening to audiobooks? That's a huge reading market, but some people don't consider that reading.
  • Are they counting people who read on their devices?
  • Are they counting like flash fiction, the humor at McSweeney's, long-form pieces in traditional or online magazines (, LA Review of Books), or, yes, blogs, for entertainment?
  • Are they talking only about new books in the  "I will sit down and engage with this serious but difficult (i.e., Literary with a capital L) fiction" mode or are they counting a comfort-read like Little Women or Harry Potter?
 In other words, are they considering the following?

1. The genre of the leisure reading (at least broken down by fiction/nonfiction);
2. The medium of the reading (audio, computer- or device-based).

I guess what I'm trying to say is that maybe this is like the alarm that routinely goes out about people not writing much these days. Au contraire--people write all the time: texts, captions, comments on online pieces, Facebook posts, Twitter, etc. It's just that they're writing--and now, maybe consuming--forms for pleasure that we don't consider reading for pleasure.

Off topic: Thank heavens someone finally told the New York Times that it's the Darwin Martin house and not the Martin Darwin house in Buffalo. Maybe The New Yorker could lend them some factcheckers?  I routinely notice grammatical errors and typos in the NYTimes (you probably do, too) that wouldn't have happened 10 years ago, so maybe that's not a priority for the paper, especially on leisure pieces, when the country's on fire. On the other hand, at least they're not reporting it as simply "upstate," which is what every other news organization writes about anything in New York state that's not NYC.


gwinne said...

This is a super fabulous series of observations.

The question about 'what counts' is not so dissimilar, I think, from that conversation we had a bit ago about TV vs. other forms of leisure, and general discrediting of popular culture (or certain forms of popular culture, at least).

Like, I'm snob enough (hell, it goes with the profession!) to think there's a difference between, as you say, trashy airport novels and, say, Paul Auster. I do think there's something to be said for engaging with longer and/or more complicated works, for the cognitive challenge. But reading an airport novel, blog, magazine, yadda yadda is still *reading* Not the poetry of Rupi Kaur, though....that's something else entirely :)

nicoleandmaggie said...

I'm too lazy to check the article, though not apparently too lazy to google to see what surveys people use to get that information (I thought GSS asked it, but apparently not in the past 10 years)

It looks like Pew has also done a study on reading habits and audiobooks are up:

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Regarding forms of leisure and uses of devices: I have recently noticed that when I am doing a crossword puzzle or reading a leisure book, if I get up to do something like make a cup of tea, I feel like I need to get back to the thing before the screen goes dark. Even when I'm working with paper, not reading on the I-pad. It makes me feel that I'm spending too much time on the device. I play certain word games on screen, and read lots of blogs, and the occasional novel, that way. So there's obviously crossover. It feels so strange to feel this pressure to return, when the paper is just going to sit there.

xykademiqz said...

An anecdote:

A colleague who is one of the worst teachers in the department teaches many of the same courses that I do. My teaching evaluations are always much higher than his and I am not surprised (he's a crazy-scientist stereotype, all scattered, disorganized, and deathly boring in the classroom).

He will say things, thinking they are derogatory, such as "Well yeah, of course you get good evals when you entertain the students." He thinks it's an insult. But isn't it nuts to expect students to learn from you when you put them to sleep in class? Making sure they are awake, engaged, and thus continue to come to class is a minimum prerequisite for successful teaching.

This idea that making learning engaging and fun is somehow antithetical to real teaching, that true teaching is dull and dry and never entertaining, is completely bonkers. However, it seems to come from the same place from which the ideas such that all genre fiction is automatically inferior to all Literary fiction (with undine's big L :-) come, even though great genre fiction is beautifully crafted and thought-provoking, while crappy literary fiction is often self-indulgently overwritten and boring.

Or that all TV/movies/shows are inferior to old-fashioned activities like, I dunno, board games? Riding a bike? Playing sports?

Or that eating quinoa is superior to rice is superior to bread is superior to fries...

We humans are judgmental $hits who like to put people down/feel superior for any reason we can come up with.

Undine said...

gwinne--It's part of the same conversation, as you say. There's a sliding scale between reading for pleasure and reading challenging works, I think, because if you read something challenging (where you want to take pencil in hand and annotate it for later), that's not leisure. That's work.

Thanks for that link, nicoleandmaggie!

Dame Eleanor, that's an interesting reaction. It's true that the book isn't going anywhere, so is it that you've backwards-learned (or whatever it's called) a screen habit and applied it to paper?

xykademiqz--your last line says it all. I'll probably be in trouble for saying this, but years ago there was an essay that (in part) defended genre fiction by saying "why have we made a fetish of those big 'important' 500-page novels where the whole drama is how the protagonist's folding of a tea towel shows untold depths underneath?"