According to a study conducted by Barna Research, we have a reading problem.
American people are reading less. Well, people are reading fewer books than they have in the past. They are still reading lots of words on phones and tablets and other screens. Here is what Barna writes in 2015:
Although fears of America becoming a post-literate culture may be overstated, they are not completely unfounded. A majority of the general population reads five books or less every year (67%). Broken down a little more, one-quarter of all adults don’t read any books at all (25%), while two out of five read anywhere between one and five books a year (42%). One-third of adults read five or more books a year (34%). Among the generations, Elders are the true bookworms—with about one-quarter reading more than 15 books a year (23%). Gen-Xers read the least; the highest proportion—one-third (32%)—reports reading zero books at all.
An issue of the New Yorker, published eight years prior, corroborates Barna’s findings about books in an article called “The Twilight of the Books.” Caleb Crain, the article’s author, narrates the history of American reader-fade. Trigger warning: It’s a sad tale for a bibliophile to read. But facts are friends, so there’s no use in ignoring the numbers.
Is there anything we can do? Crain is dubious. He writes:
No effort of will is likely to make reading popular again. Children may be browbeaten, but adults resist interference with their pleasures. It may simply be the case that many Americans prefer to learn about the world and to entertain themselves with television and other streaming media, rather than with the printed word, and that it is taking a few generations for them to shed old habits like newspapers and novels.
But Crain does offer one consolation: “The alternative is that we are nearing the end of a pendulum swing, and that reading will return, driven back by forces as complicated as those now driving it away.”
What Can We Do?
I take issue with both of Crain’s propositions. First, on one hand, I think I am far more cynical about human nature than Crain. But, on the other hand, I am exponentially more optimistic than Crain about society’s potential to read more books, because I don’t believe “browbeating” to be the only tool in our collective toolbelt.
For example, many economists, politicians, retailers, and, yes, now this publisher, have found some hope in Richard H. Thaler’s Nudge. I believe, like many others, that many of those “forces” that drive the market are personal, not impersonal, bias-free, neutral spirits of the age. Those with skin in the game (authors, agents, publishers, retailers, and readers) can nudge society back in a positive direction. We don’t have to browbeat one another—just nudge one another, one good book at a time.
Second, I am ultimately confident in God’s hand in human affairs. He is a “force” against whom none of us can reckon. Nudges are rendered irrelevant. Streaming content, social media, innovations in entertainment culture—it doesn’t matter. God’s providence can change the entire scenario in an instant. He may use books, He may not; God can transform society (He can transform people) in the blink of an eye. Maybe that’s an unfair critique, because Cain wrote in regards to human will, but God’s will is a relevant fact in this equation. And, based on what I have seen in the past, I like the book’s chances to continue to change the world. Usually, testimonies are accompanied by a bibliography.
So, crazy as it may sound to you, I am going to suggest we nudge, and that we pray.
Why We Read
I will begin with the more obvious reasons that we should read. To name a few, let me begin with distraction-free, noiseless, screenless, entertainment/learning. There are fewer and fewer opportunities to enjoy and learn this way. And while our brains are busy with virtually unlimited content on multiple devices, the quality of the content we consume is seldom worthwhile, and our quality of attention is seldom undivided. Second, we need experts. And published authors are often those who have been vetted and deemed as such. Unless you have the means necessary to travel the world to spend significant time in person, this is the best way to learn from them (sadly, Twitter and YouTube are no substitute). Books remain as the platform with the highest concentration of quality content in the world. Third, reading old books affords us the unique opportunity to enjoy the company of generations of experts we would never otherwise encounter. So far, only books allow us to travel through time. Fourth, books remain the most innovative reading technology in history. We still haven’t beaten the book, though e-ink got as close as anyone (thank you, Bezos!). Fifth, books are a truly open platform. Sure, you often have to pay a nominal fee for the book, but you have to pay your ISP as well. Adam Smith could have told us that! Sixth, shall I go on?
Allow me one more, less obvious benefit of reading—one that I think is not only good for our minds, but for our souls.
I am tickled—we say this in the South to mean “amused”—every time I see a Twitter “thread” on the internet. Twitter lengthened the character count, yet people still can’t get enough microphone time. And since the audience is assembled for them at www.twitter.com, they deploy their most potent thoughts in a Twitter storm of sentences, far exceeding the limit that was designed to produce concision. We love for our voices to be amplified. So I posted this:
I think it’s interesting Twitter continues to bend/trend towards the format of the “thread” and lengthier posts.
One cool place I found other awesome threads by really really smart people is a long-form platform called books!
And it’s true! This is why we read books: humans like to listen.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying our society is full of good listeners. In fact, I actually think the numbers reflect the opposite—a wane in the virtue of good listening. I am saying, rather, that humans have the potential to find great pleasure when they do listen.
When we listen to longform journalism, when we listen to podcasts, when we listen to novels, we find that we actually like it. This is why it’s so sad to see book reading in decline. We are missing out, as a society.
One of the big reasons we like to listen, I think, is that we are relieved to not be (or delude ourselves into thinking we are) in control of the message, even if it is for a little while (by the way, it’s the same reason we like movies). We like to give ourselves over to the authority of a story, and let the author be in control. This courageous act, when given to a trustworthy author, yields good results (and with untrustworthy authors, it can be disastrous). Reading is a truly open-minded endeavor. And when skillfully executed, and while the reader’s guard is down, a reader may change their mind about a matter of consequence. In an age when changing your mind is about the weakest, most embarrassing thing one can do, it’s refreshing when a book can foster a virtue society seeks to extinguish.
This, the age of trolling, the age of shouting over one another in threads of 100,000 characters or less, is the age to minimize your browser and read more books.
I think we should do something about this. I think we could make a difference.
An effective nudge has to be simple. It has to seem doable. If you’re not reading any, or many, books this year, maybe you couldn’t care less about this downward trend. But if you do care, and these statistics surprise or alarm you, what if your annual protest to reading decline was to read one book this year? What if you didn’t read alone, but got your spouse, a friend, or a neighbor on board to read together? One book in 2018 seems plausible, doesn’t it?
Or perhaps you read some, but not as much as you’d like. Your application point might be to read one more book this year. Do you ever discover a book that everyone else in the world seems to have read, but somehow, you missed it? It might be that your contribution to the discourse is to read one more book this year. We need you.
Or maybe your reading capacity is at its limit, but the quality of book selection could be improved. I’d be hard-pressed to find someone who couldn’t fit into this category.
Give One Good Book
This idea is my favorite. I know at Christmas that many families curb excessive gift-giving under the framework, “Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.” But why do we only do this at Christmas?
One of the things I look forward to most on my birthday is the one gift I know I am always going to get. My coworker Dave is book connoisseur and has a knack for thoughtful gift giving. He manages to always find a great book to give me that everyone else in the world has read but me. And I love it.
What if we took every opportunity to give the kind of books we wish the world read more of? And not just on birthdays or Christmas. A thoughtful, in-between gift to let someone know that you see them might have the most powerful effect on this whole reading problem.
What I love about this idea most is that it addresses the qualitative aspect of our discourse. It’s not just about increasing the quantity of books read, but the right kind of books. Give someone a better book to read.