The New Yorker, Neuroscience, and The Fate of Reading

The New Yorker (“Twilight of the Books: What will life be like if people stop reading?”) had me thinking broadly about our collective reading habits. (At least Google search knows what I like: when I type in “twilight books,” this New Yorker article comes up first instead of Twilight books. I appreciate that.)

The article opens with some rather startling statistics on the trend on reading habits in the U.S. over the past half a century (hint: they’re not going up). But, more on that a bit later.

What are the implications for a culture as a whole, if more and more members of that culture choose to consume media in any of its variegated forms, instead of spending that leisure time reading a book?

“Such a shift would change the texture of society … if, over time, many people choose television over books, then a nation’s conversation with itself is likely to change. A reader learns about the world and imagines it differently from the way a viewer does; according to some experimental psychologists, a reader and a viewer even think differently. If the eclipse of reading continues, the alteration is likely to matter in ways that aren’t foreseeable.”

The rest of the article really jumps all over the place. Among the more interesting moving parts are the thoughts on Maryanne Wolf’s book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, which discusses the neurobiological approach to the study of reading; Walter Ong’s important book, Orality and Literacy; and even Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You (link goes to Malcolm Gladwell’s review, also from The New Yorker).

A thought that caught my attention was a slight revision in how we might conceptualize the act of reading. Is it an exercise, a skill that the brain works at, or is it more of an almost zen-like state of flow? “When reading goes well, Wolf suggests, it feels effortless, like drifting down a river rather than rowing up it. It makes you smarter because it leaves more of your brain alone.”

What I considered to be the main thesis of the article is certainly the part most likely to spur healthy debate:

“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. 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.

But if the change is permanent, and especially if the slide continues, the world will feel different, even to those who still read.”

Reading isn’t going anywhere. But, is the collective act of reading undergoing a change of character? And if so, how would the world be if everyone did in fact have their worldview shaped through media and visual communication, instead of the printed word? Would we be able to notice that change? To some extent, it surely is a change that’s happening now. We have to wonder at the implications for how we process information, think critically, how we think about ourselves, and how we engage with the rest of the world.

All of this really makes me want to go read a book.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

The NEA studies on reading behavior mentioned above are more than important enough to warrant further discussion. Here’s a link to the 2004 NEA Report in question: “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.” As far as studies on reading go, this was by far the most comprehensive one I’ve seen in terms of size, with over 17,000 respondents. Generally speaking, the report brings news that surely made any true English major a little sad at heart: “Literary reading is in dramatic decline with fewer than half of American adults now reading literature.”

The report has a number of very interesting (and depressing) findings which are worth checking out. Particularly of interest to me were the statistics on the consumption of different types of literature — novels, poetry, and plays:

“According to the survey, the most popular types of literature are novels or short stories, which were read by 45 percent or 93 million adults in the previous year. Poetry was read by 12 percent or 25 million people, while just 4 percent or seven million people reported having read a play.

The NEA follow-up to that major study was in 2007: “To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence.” The useful thing about the latter study is that it indicates some greater societal impact for this decline in reading: “This study shows the startling declines, in how much and how well Americans read, that are adversely affecting this country’s culture, economy, and civic life as well as our children’s educational achievement.” The main points:

  • Americans are reading less
  • Americans are reading less well
  • The declines in reading have civic, social, and economic implications

Ironically, the people most affected probably aren’t going to be the ones reading that very report, but now I’m just being picky: “To Read or Not to Read compels us to consider more carefully how we spend our time, since those choices affect us individually and collectively.”

As a result of those rather eye-opening studies, the NEA did create the national reading program: The Big Read. The Big Read is a noble program: what if everyone in one place read the same book at the same time? A real reading community. The idea is based on community reading events with towns and cities all across the United States, involving author events, book discussions, and so on. So far, the program — which includes such community reading of books such as Fahrenheit 451, The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, and The Grapes of Wrath — has reached some 800 communities. Here’s hoping for another 800 more at least.

And as it turns out, all is not lost. At least as of 2009, the NEA report “Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy” (link goes to PDF of the report), suggested that the future of literary-minded readers is far from doomed. The New York Times: “Fiction Reading Increases for Adults” also helpfully includes some backstory on the interpretation of some of those NEA findings:

“In each survey since 1982 the data did not differentiate between those who read several books a month and those who read only one poem. Nor did the surveys distinguish between those who read the complete works of Proust or Dickens and those who read one Nora Roberts novel or a single piece of fan fiction on the Internet.”

Those are some pretty significant questions over interpretation. Oh well. If the goal of the survey is to get people to sit up and take notice, I’d say the NEA managed it pretty well. More interesting still would be a large-scale survey that studies the kind of reading done online and with ebooks — have there been any good studies?


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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