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Reading: Decline or Transformation?

Many believe reading is in decline. But is it?

You hear stories about book stores struggling, kids not reading anything outside of compulsory English classes and authors getting low royalties. A cynic would interpret that in the age of digital media, reading novels has decreased. But it’s not that simple. Yes, it’s difficult to adapt to new technology and formats of reading. It’s not impossible, it can be done. Also emerging are new ways to read: on Kindles as well as audiobooks. Backing this up is research done by the Pew Research Centre, which argues that 74% of Americans read a book in the last 12 months (of any format). This is interesting, and although it’s not bookworm levels it does demonstrate an engagement with literature.

Audiobooks and eBooks are new compared to traditional books. But they are valid, even if an audiobook engages with sound as opposed to the written. However, this is bad news for traditional hardcovers and paperbacks. There will always be those who will not accept reading outside of a novel they can physically hold, but they don’t influence the reading habits of the Anglosphere. What should also be considered is the time spent reading. Sadly, that’s also in decline. According to a survey by the Department of Labor’s American Time Use Survey, reading time has gone down from 0.36 hours to 0.29 hours during the years of 2003 – 2016. These statistics may sound alarming, but they make sense when you consider that Americans work long hours and went through a Global Financial Crisis.

In a previous post, I argued that reading can be affected by external factors outside of your control. And there’s no shame in that! America doesn’t have to be a reading superstar country- even though that will help considering they publish alot of books. In 2013, Forbes predicted that Americans will publish over a million books (this includes self-published books and novellas). If you don’t have the readers to sustain a high level of publishing, then that’s bad news, no matter how much I want to put a positive spin on it.

However, let’s look outside of the United States of America. By looking at the
World Culture Score Index, we can understand the reading habits of other countries in 2017. Topping the list is India, with the average citizen spending 10 hours and 42 minutes reading. This data does not discern between reading for leisure or for employment. Other countries that hit the highs include China, Thailand, Czech Republic and Singapore. My country, Australia, ranks well coming in at number 15. The USA is ranked 22. I remember hearing that on social media platform, YouTube, that the Spanish language book community is thriving with its stars earning lucrative money. This was surprising as it opposes the idea that reading is in decline. Perhaps a better question would be: is reading in decline only in the USA? If so, why?

Again, I don’t have the answer to that question. The cynical answer is that the reason why Americans aren’t reading is because they don’t want to. That may be the fault of the publishers, who aren’t selecting high quality material, or are opting for quality over quantity. But that’s a gross oversimplication of the process. Really, what I think the problem with publishers is that they are trying to adapt to the digital age. Another cynical approach would be that the West undervalues literature and authors, and is not willing to pay for their art. I want to refute that, but I don’t know. All of the data I have mentioned raises more questions than answers.

Either way, the way we absorb literature has changed and will continue to do so. Publishers must adapt to the market, as must authors. To answer my question, the reading of literature has transformed even if its not necessarily in decline.

What are your thoughts about reading? Do you read as much as you want? Thoughts on the research mentioned? Write below!

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