Okay, so if you work in books or read a lot you've probably heard about this: the recent AP/Ipsos poll on American reading habits (the whole thing is downloadable from their website - click on the August 21 survey, then the "Topline results" button), commonly reported in the following way: "One in four adults read no books last year."
I met with a potential bookstore investor the other day, someone who loves reading but doesn't work in the industry, and even he had heard about it: "Didn't someone show that fewer people are reading now?" he asked. And that is how most people have interpreted these results.
(Why is the survey NOT described "Seventy-five percent of Americans read a book last year?")
John Freeman of the National Book Critics Circle, blogging at the Guardian, used the poll as a taking-off point (or evidence) for an unhappy piece about reading in America, apparently inspired by a trip to Vegas (which I admit, depresses me too). He, too, described the survey results as part of a trend: "Now a study has put a figure on the decline of reading in the US." I like John Freeman a lot -- I've worked with him on events, and he's an incredibly smart and well-read person and a great advocate for books, criticism and literacy. But this time I have to disagree, and admit his assumptions make me a little mad.
(Why didn't the survey ask how many books Americans read the year before?)
I've been hearing about the Ipsos poll all week, but I came to John Freeman's piece the back way, through this response from crime writer/blogger Meg Gardiner, and some of her objections got me thinking. (For example, there are apparently a number of bookstores in Las Vegas.)
Remember in 2004, when the National Endowment for the Arts led by Dana Gioia released the Reading at Risk survey, and everyone in the book world got really sad and scared? If you don't, you can read about it and download the whole thing here on the NEA site. The flap over that survey, which also made me a little mad, was probably part of why I started blogging. Along with its counterpoint, Kevin Smokler's fantastically smart and optimistic little collection Bookmark Now (brought to you here courtesy of Google Books), I started thinking that there ought to be more voices for the realistically bright side of change in the world of books.
But here's the thing that gets me, the realization that made me laugh out loud while I was cleaning the house this weekend:
The NEA survey states that 56% of Americans read any book in 2002 (that's ANY book, not just "literary works," which the survey focuses on.)
The AP/Ipsos survey say that 73% of Americans read any book last year (i.e. in 2006).
Therefore, if these two respected organizations are to be believed...
AMERICANS READ MORE LAST YEAR THAN THEY READ FIVE YEARS AGO.
I'm going to repeat that, in case you missed it. The NEA declared that half of Americans had NOT read a book in 2002. AP/Ipsos declared that one in four Americans had NOT read a book in 2006. All the while, half of Americans DID read a book in 2002, and three quarters of Americans DID read a book in 2006.
Three-quarters is more than half.
Easy to miss, given the language of the two surveys, isn't it? This is why one gets so perturbed at media coverage of all things related to the book industry, and especially to independent bookstores. Doom and gloom stories are apparently sexier than healthy, prosperous stories.
Or perhaps, as one bookseller I know suggested, it's a combination of snobbery and fear on behalf of book people themselves that leads to such a bias. We want to believe that we're the guardians of culture in a country of hicks and philistines, that what we do by reading and writing and producing and selling and talking about books is special and brave and maybe tragically romantic. So we shake our heads at a culture in decline, rather than looking for something to celebrate in a world full of things to celebrate.
Obviously there's more to it than that. The numbers are still lower than one would like them to be. And there's a lot more depth and richness to the statistics in each poll than the headline-grabbing number of books read (for example, women tend to read more than men; older Americans read more; certain kinds of books are read more than others, etc.) These are numbers we should perhaps be looking at in order to know our best customers, as well as who we can reach out to in order to expand the audience for books. But first we have to look past the knee-jerk hell-in-a-handbasket interpretation of the numbers and see what they're really saying.
I'm glad I got that off my chest. Eager to hear your thoughts.
[Gawker-style update: I've taken another look at those Ipsos numbers; here's another interesting set of facts. Keep in mind that these percentages INCLUDE those who have not read a book in the past year.
Percentage polled who read 1 to 5 books in the last year: 30%
6 to 15 books: 23%
More than 15 books: 20%
So for every American who didn't read any books last year, there's another who read more than 15 books. The average (mean) number of books read in 2006 by all polled: 14.9 books per year.
There's a number worth chewing on.]