In the age of smartphones, Androids, iPods, iPads and social networks, an important question arises: Is reading a dying trend in modern America? A review conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts, looking at more than 40 studies by universities, foundations, business groups, and agencies since 2004, shows a steady plummet in the number of young people who read over the past two decades, when technology began to captivate youth. In fact, less than half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 ever read for pleasure.
The report mentions that reading seems to affect lifestyle, as readers are much more likely to be involved in cultural and volunteer activities than those who don’t like reading.
“This is a massive social problem,” NEA Chairman Dana Gioia told the Boston Globe. “We are losing the majority of the new generation. They will not achieve anything close to their potential because of poor reading.”
Caroline Ward, a children’s librarian in Stanford, Conn. (and former president of the children’s division of the American Library Association), told the Globe, “I’m not hearing of a dramatically big drop, but I would say the number of serious readers, who used to come in and get 20 to 30 books – we’re just not seeing that. We see some, but fewer than we used to.”
History would seem to indicate that any progressive movement understands and utilizes the importance of literacy, and evidence on this matter is particularly apparent in the form of the Cuban Literacy Campaign, which took place after the Cuban Revolution.
If the popular social feeling is heading toward a desire to abandon reading, progressives realize it could be detrimental to working-class youth of generations to come.
However, there still are large groups of teens and young adults who continue to appreciate literature.
According to blogger Teralyn Rose Pilgrim, Paul Yamazaki, head buyer at San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore, commented on this in April at the Oxford Conference for the Book, an annual fair that brings together young authors, editors, publishers and readers.
City Lights is one of the most famous bookstores in America, due to its willingness to feature liberal and controversial books.
Someone in attendance mentioned to Yamakazi the recent closing of Borders, a popular chain of bookstores. Though the closing was a clear result of the economic times, the questioner asked whether it was also a sign that there is a reading decline in America. Yamakazi acknowledged a decline, but emphasized the fact that despite today’s youth having grown up with technology, they still appreciate novels in a traditional, physical form. Moreover, even though reading numbers have gone down in the U.S. overall, there has been a major boom in teen and young adult literature, what with the success of novels like Harry Potter and Twilight. In fact, young adults who were reading more, he said, were preparing themselves earlier in life to be good authors, and this contributed, in turn, to the rise of young adult literature.
Graphic novels have also contributed to an overall rise in readership, as titles like Watchmen and Scott Pilgrim have sold well in stores, which led to their adaptation into films.
Perhaps the Internet encourages people, through smaller news bytes and Facebook status updates, to become accustomed to reading only snippets or sentences here or there. It’s often thought that this can be remedied if people are able to establish an online community of readers.
What this all seems to amount to is that people must find a way to integrate popular tools like social networking into intellectual habits, particularly reading.
Some progress has been made in this area in the form of electronic reading tools, like the Amazon Kindle, which tries to attract readers by providing an organized system of books in a digital format, though it obviously trades the appreciated ink-and-paper format to do so.
Another positive improvement in the Internet age is the upsurge of fanfiction websites. Fanfiction is a colloquial term for fictional stories written by fans of films, shows and books; they are considered “non-canonical” to the official stories they’re derived from. However, the “fanfics” include the same characters and plot points of the media from which they are taken, and attempt to expound upon the series from the new writer’s perspective.
Yamakazi remained hopeful that reading will not only re-emerge as a popular pastime, but that it will be successfully incorporated into a modern technology-savvy generation, in a way that is beneficial to everyone.
Photo: Dan Anderson looks through comics at Gotham Comics in Westminster, Maryland. Comics and graphic novels have contributed to a rise in readership among young adults. Dave Munch/AP