Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Reading too much into new survey on books..?

Some sobering news from an AP-Ipsos poll cited by Yahoo today: "One in four adults say they read no books at all in the past year..."

The typical person claimed to have read four books in the last year — half read more and half read fewer. Excluding those who hadn't read any, the usual number read was seven.
Who are the 27 percent of people the AP-Ipsos poll found hadn't read a single book this year? ... They tend to be older, less educated, lower income, minorities, from rural areas and less religious.

I'm not sure what to make of this poll, from using my own personal experience as a guide. I spend as much time reading books as I ever have, but I notice that I **finish** reading far fewer books than at any previous point in my life.

Nowadays, perhaps as a result of prolonged internet exposure, I find that I tend to target specific chapters of books and limit myself to those, instead of working through books in their entirety anymore. I read only to learn, to expand my understanding of my world; I can't recall cracking open too many novels since 9-11... my love of fiction was one of the smaller casualties of that attack. I probably "read" fifty to sixty books last year (as Dag can attest from seeing me lugging them to our weekly meetings), but finished, cover to cover, only the same paltry number as the average man listed in this poll.
How would that be acknowledged if I had participated in this survey? Would I be slanting the numbers upward... or down?

I read the Bible; not as often as I believe I should, but still fairly frequently. I read it yet I don't even really think about reading it cover to cover, not seeing it as that kind of book.
How might that be measured by this survey?

...[T]hose who said they never attend religious services read nearly twice as many as those who attend frequently. ...
The Bible and religious works were read by two-thirds in the survey, more than all other categories. ...

It's tempting to strike a cynical pose, and proclaim the raw numbers of the poll a fitting destination for a civilization growing ever more ungrateful and indifferent to the treasure it has accumulated through so many previous generations' commitment to progress. It's tempting to say that, but maybe we're all so doggone busy trying to add to this bounty, or committed to safeguard it, for the sake of the next generation, that reading habits are undergoing only a temporary shift in our priorities.

Are books themselves undergoing a similarly temporary fluctuation? Are they destined to perpetually shrink in size, with the ideas contained within them similarly simplified, to suit the curtailed attention span for those ideas? Or is that simplification a useful discipline, to ensure we are really clear about what we are trying to communicate to each other? Are books retreating to some equivalent of pamphlet size, waiting for a time where they may grow again as technological innovation reduces the traditional costs of printing and distributing them?

What fate lies in store for us, if we are indeed becoming, as the survey seems to suggest, an alliterate society, one capable of reading but choosing not to? Are we destined to become, not so much a fracture of "haves" and "have nots", but rather a division based on "can" and "can't do"? One group, benefiting from the training they unknowingly receive through their reading, capable of imagining different, learned, patterns of behavior to aim for? Is that group going to emerge as the only percentage with the ability to imagine the leading role that the individual can play in their own self-betterment? Will the choice not to read leave the other group, the alliterates, possessing no comparable faith in their ability to act as agents of change in their own lives..?

Maybe an alliterate world is one in which change (in the form of progress, not deterioration) becomes less common... which promises to make it a more dreadful curse than one filled with illiteracy, where at least there's an ability to see the unseen; the poor illiterate can look at a book and know he's missing something, can imagine what it might be, and may hunger to acquire it.
Would that leave the illiterate as having more faith in human progress than the alliterate, who may look at the same book and judge himself rich enough that he doesn't need to read the wealth of knowledge that may lie within?
In such a world, who then would truly be the poor one?


isabella mori said...

very interesting question, this: "Are we destined to become, not so much a fracture of "haves" and "have nots", but rather a division based on "can" and "can't do"?"

i certainly see that in my personal life. i'll have to think a bit about what that might look like if applied to larger societal groups.

dag said...

I know this is out of character but i'll amke this outrageously generous offer: the first 25 people who show up at our weekly meeting Thursday evening at the library can fight among themselves to borrow my hardcover copy of Neil Postman, Technopoly for a week. Very easy to read,informative, and enlightening on just this topic and more related. As a consolation, those who miss out on getting my book for a week can fight for Jacque Barzun, The House of Intellect.

Anyone with better computer skills than I could improve his or her chances of winning by providing links here to the above mentioned books.