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Reading Still on the Rise

It’s an article of faith among many — perhaps especially those of a conservative disposition? — that the decline of reading is inevitable in our hyper-connected media environment. Heck, some have even called this an age of distraction. The problem for that assumption is that the evidence doesn’t support the narrative of decline. In 2009 the NEA released a report called “Reading on the Rise”, and the trend noted then seems to be continuing, according to a new Pew study on the readings habits of young people.

More than eight in ten Americans between the ages of 16 and 29 read a book in the past year, and six in ten used their local public library. At the youngest end of the spectrum, high schoolers in their late teens (ages 16-17) and college-aged young adults (ages 18-24) are especially likely to have read a book or used the library in the past 12 months. And although their library usage patterns may often be influenced by the requirements of school assignments, their interest in the possibilities of mobile technology may also point the way toward opportunities of further engagement with libraries later in life.

Now, some will say, “Yes, but what are they reading?” My guess would be: Nothing much different from what they were reading before, just more of it — which is good news in more than one way. I have often cited W. H. Auden’s belief that people shouldn’t read masterpieces all the time: “When one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there is something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one. Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit.” And mediocre books often prove to be gateway drugs to better books.

Those of us who love books and reading shouldn’t be insisting on our familiar narrative of decline. We should instead ask ourselves how best to take advantage of this increasingly common habit of reading among the young, and their willingness to use their local libraries. Fellow readers, this is a time of opportunity.

UPDATE: On the other hand, what if people are reading more but learning less? More thoughts on that . . . eventually.

UPDATE TWO: An email from the ever-thoughtful Nick Carr raises some important questions:

But while there are encouraging signs in the Pew report, I’m not sure that it presented clear evidence that reading is “on the rise.” Looking at the data, there seemed to be only one question on that topic, but it was only asked of a subset of respondents who self-described themselves as “readers of e-content.” Of that set, 30% said they’re spending more time reading, 7% less, and 62% the same. There’s no data, though, on the entire set of respondents. Also, the simple fact that phones have switched from voice processors to word processors pretty much guarantees that young people, in particular, are spending more time reading now. A mediocre book may well be a gateway to better books. But is a text? A Facebook update? An email? Probably not.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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