To Read or Not To Read

To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence…That is the name of the recent study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts on reading habits in America.  Just as I was writing about the study in the UK on re-reading in my post Reading and Re-reading, regretting no such kind of surveys being done in North America, and here it is, the NEA’s reading survey results, incidentally, released the same day I published my post. 

Well, maybe I should not be so much of lamenting the lack of reading surveys than the actual survey results.  In a nutshell, the major findings are:

  • Americans are reading less, especially the young.  For example, the percent of non-readers among 17 year-olds doubled to almost 20% in the last two decades.  Or, on the average, 15 – 24 year-olds spend 7 minutes reading on a weekday, 25 – 34 year-olds are slightly better, 9 minutes.
  • Reading comprehension is on the decline, as indicated by reading scores.
  • The decline in reading has civic, social, and economic implications.

The whole 98-page report can be downloaded in pdf format here.  It is not Stephen King material, but just the same…interesting reading with an ominous undertone.  It covers various topics including correlations between pleasure reading and academic scores, reading habits, reading and multitasking, employment, internet and digital technology, the relevance of newspaper, and yes, even blogging.

I understand that the issue is complicated and the causes are complex.  Critics are quick to point out that the form and purpose of reading have changed in this internet driven age.  People still read to look up information they need, critics argue.

Maybe the concern should be the gradual extinction of literary reading, the reading of literature for pleasure, and the whole business of reading and writing.  When the figure shows that 63% of college seniors read little or nothing for pleasure, even the pragmatists should be worried when they consider the bottom line.

Published by


If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

15 thoughts on “To Read or Not To Read”

  1. A very discouraging trend indeed.
    I am working on a book, which I hope to finish in a few years. My daughter, who enjoys a good book, said, “Dad, you better hurry up. By the time you finish there might not be anybody left still reading books.”
    Oh well, I persist on ’cause I have to write of what I saw before I am out of this old world.

    Dr. Tom Bibey


  2. Interesting survey, Arti. For myself, I love to read and reread my favorite authors but reading blogs has supplanted much of my reading time.


  3. Here’s a theory on what’s happening. People take in and process information in different ways. They have preferred learning styles. Books really only cater to one style. For those who don’t speed read, it’s an audio style.

    For those with other styles, they are going to naturally prefer more visual or kinesthetic media. In the old days, it there were less available and less interesting. Now that everything is 24 hour -on demand – multi-media, the printed page starts to look flat.

    Reading for pleasure is pleasureable for some people while for others is boring or even painful. Reading for pleasure is undergoing significant competition. It’s less about failure and more about choice.


  4. I hate to say it but “reading is fundamental.” Even if young people don’t like it, schools should mandate a minimum amount of reading each student must meet. Parents should also be involved.


  5. One of the problems with the way we teach reading is that it’s geared toward learning to be a slow reader. If people read faster, they would read more and enjoy it more.

    What schools need to do is start in the first grade and continue to teach reading and work on reading skills until students can read at 2000 wpm. It may take years but it will certainly increase students capability to read hundreds of books each year.

    If the average book is around 40,000 words (300 pages), that means you can read a book every 20 minutes. It would be nothing to read a book a day. That’s 365 books a year so by the 12 grade, you would have read over 3,700 books with very little effort.


  6. It’s a sad trend indeed. While my nieces and nephews get video games and transformers, I give them all books for gifts at Christmas. I also start them reading on them before I leave. It’s my one man crusade to return the joy of reading books to this generation that is growing up.


  7. As a literature professor in a unversity, myself, I find it troubling that students do not value reading books. I am charged with trying — over the course of one semester in an introduction to literature course — to help them enjoy reading. Choosing texts is a problem — do I expose them to “great literature” or try to pick stuff they will automatically enjoy? Do I stretch them or give them material to “hook” them?

    Add to all of this that 85% of my students are working at least 25 hours a week on top of full-time study, and when do they have time to read for pleasure…?

    I wonder how much economics influences those statistics? Years ago, a university education was much harder to attain for the middle and working classes, and thus fewer students had to work their way through school. Students could live on campus and enjoy campus life and study hard and all that. Now I see my students running from class to their car to drive a half hour to get to their job to make money to pay rent and food and tuition. It’s a wonder they get their homework done at all….


  8. Today there are more grants and scholarships then ever. Also more parents have the means to send their kids to school. I think you have a rosy picture of the old days. Most people didn’t go to college or had to work their way through school.

    It’s also a lot easier to get a job today than 30 years ago.


  9. One of the other problems of literature pre 1960 is that it’s rapidly losing its relavance. The world has changed that much. Anything that had view of the future is mostly wrong or now silly. A lot of the views of women and minorities in literature is now see as offensive. They also showed a very limited view of socials systems, politics and economics.


  10. Steve,

    As a reading teacher, I must add a qualifier to what you say about reading speed. Yes, fluency is very important to comprehension and learning styles are very influential. However, I don’t teach my students to be slower readers, rather more thoughtful, strategic readers. There is so much competing for our attention in today’s world and much of it requires little or no effort and thought on our part. As a whole we are a much less reflective society, and that has had sad consequences for us – not just as readers, but as decision makers, parents, spouses and moral agents. Faster does not always mean better. If often means poorer.


  11. Actually people who read faster usually have higher rates of comprehension. One of the reasons is that they are able to read so much more that they get more practice.

    I would bet you that you can’t find one person who reads at 300 wpm who has better comprehension that someone who reads at 2000 wpm.

    One of the big differences in speed is that people who read slow are audio readers. They actually have to say all the words out loud or at least in their heads. People who read faster learn to read with their eyes and aren’t limited by how long it takes to pronounce words.


  12. But are they reflective and thoughtful about what they have read? Does what they have read make a difference in their thinking and actions? We have information overload in our society but less critical thinking and logical reasoning than ever before. I guess our difference is that I want to know my students have integrated what they read into their larger understanding of themselves and the world around them, not just understood the words they have read. They can see the word “red” and know it means a color, but what implications that “red” something has for the characters in the story or thesis of the essay is much more important for them to understand. At least in my way of thinking.


  13. I think reports like the NEA’s really serve very little purpose except to get people who do read riled up. When I first read the report I thought, “OMG!” Now, as I’ve had time to digest I wonder what the whole point of the report is especially since the NEA refuses to make any speculations or study of why people seem to be reading less than they used to. Because of this, the report is very much like Chicken Little.

    People are reading, they just aren’t reading what the NEA wants them to read or for the reasons the NEA thinks they should read. My dad did not read a single book this year but he read the entire newspaper everyday. To say that he isn’t reading is not true.

    The NEA report implies that there was some sort of golden age of reading where everyone was walking around with their nose in a book. Reading, literary reading, has always been done by a minority of people. As someone who loves books and is studying to become a librarian do I wish more people read? Sure I do. But to turn reading into a duty or medicine (because it’s good for you) is not going to make those who don’t do it any more likely to pick up a book for fun.


  14. I thank you all for your thoughtful comments. It has been a great forum. I’ve appreciated all your insights and personal views. I would like to respond in my next post.


  15. Stephanie.. I think you’ve made some excellent points.

    I wonder if you ask people how much they read everyday if you include everything they read a lot. If you were a manager and you were reading reports all day, it’s probably not very relaxing to go home and read a book.

    With more and more people become knowledge workers, we may need to redefine what we mean by reading in all these studies.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s