Friday, August 24, 2007

Link-Mad Response: American Reading Habits Will Surprise You

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.]

10 comments:

lady t said...

Amen to everything you've said here,BN-I read the Freeman piece over the weekend(caught a link to it via Return of the Reluctant via Meg Gardiner)and thought the whole premise he presented was absurd.

Nothing against the good people of Nevada,but looking for a book store in Las Vegas is like going to Utah to check out the local bar scene;if you really,really want to find it,you can but it's not going to be easy since that's not the reason tourists flock there on a regular basis. Also,I know of a Jane Austen online group that held their first real world meeting in Vegas and had a blast.

All this hand wringing about the state of reading is very self serving to those snobs your fellow bookseller was talking about. True book lovers know it's about quality,not quantity that counts in the end.

Sandy said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for posting this. If only the media were interested in putting a positive spin on the state of our reading nation! I feel the same way every time I hear about the decline in children's reading habits as well as the End of the Independent Bookseller.
Many kudos to you for turning this survey on its head to show people that the glass is really, may I say, three-quarters full.

sandra said...

I keep wondering why we don't see survey results of British reading habits, or Turkish, or Armenian, or any other nation -- just North American. Are all those other countries really so much more literate than we are, or do they just have better things to do with their time than worry over how many books their neighbours might/might not have read last year?

I also find these hell-in-a-handbasket statistics very misleading, because they dont' tell us anything about other reading habits -- like, for instance, do those people who don't pick up a book happen to pick up The Economist on a regular basis, or read two or three newspapers a day instead. And of the majestic majority who do so selflessly read, how many of them are reading bodice rippers by Diane Gabaldon in preference to, say, Moby Dick, or the latest Philip Roth? Does quality count?

Ezra said...

Interesting, but I think the most plausible interpretation is that there's something seriously screwed up in the methodology of either or both of the surveys. I suspect the surveys defined "read" pretty differently to warrant such a disparity, maybe with one asking, "How many books did you read in the previous year, including those you skimmed?" while the other one was, "How many books did you finish?"

David de Beer said...

I am sooo glad you posted this; am currently in the process of running around with much glee and saying "written nerd says differently! see? [add linky]"

Jason said...

Just to second Sandra, it seems that in this age of the internet, computers, email, etc. people are reading more than they have in a long time. Yes, the image is everywhere, but so is text. And books aren’t the only container for words, nor do they only contain words. What constitutes “reading” a book of engravings? Is it preferable, according to this type of statistic, to reading a literary journal?

Andy Laties said...

I thought the NEA survey was only measuring the reading of Literature and that the numbers referred to novels, poetry and plays...and that people who objected to the survey said that it wasn't counting the hugely growing genre of Literary Nonfiction.

RfP said...

Unfortunately the AP/Ipsos survey is at odds with several much larger and more rigorously conducted studies by the Census, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Science Foundation, and others. I compared them in boring detail here. Basically, the larger surveys found that more like 43-57% of Americans read books, not 73% as the AP found. The NEA study was by far the most carefully conducted, and they found that 57% read any book while 47% read literature (any fiction, poetry, or play).

(I looked more at those larger studies in "How much do we read?" and "Who reads genre fiction?")

I thought the NEA survey was only measuring the reading of Literature

The NEA and the Census both asked about all books, though the rest of the NEA study was on fiction.

I keep wondering why we don't see survey results of British reading habits, or Turkish, or Armenian, or any other nation -- just North American. Are all those other countries really so much more literate than we are

Several large international studies do get cited regularly. In fact, several of the news reports on the AP/Ipsos survey quote international statistics.

I've culled statistics from two international surveys here:
• A 2004 Gallup poll on reading in the US, Canada, and Great Britain
• A 2001 OECD survey comparing a number of reading metrics for over 30 countries.

RfP said...

Sorry, I should clarify:

I realize you're comparing across time, so yes it's possible that reading habits have changed within that 5-year period. But I'd say the differences in survey methods are the source of the difference. (Similarly-run Gallup polls have widely varying results from year to year, simply because of their survey methods.) The survey-methods explanation seems especially likely if you look at the time-trend data showing readership in steady decline over the last 20 years.

I'm not saying that the NEA figures merit doom and gloom, but I have doubts that the AP/Ipsos finding is comparable to the NEA study, or even to previous AP or Gallup findings.

Lucy Stag said...

Hi, just wandered in, and was too interested not to post.

"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."

See, I do have the bullshit literary romantic notions in my head. Of course I do. But I don't want to be part of a tiny literary minority while everyone else watches American Idol, and has never read anything that wasn't assigned to them in school. It could make me feel special and elite, but more likely it leads to depression and alienation, and feelnig judgemental because the massses seem to be not too keen on stretching their brains.

Literature was once a more dominate and important form of communication that it is now. And the short story was more popular, as far as I am aware. I like to be skeptical as hell about rose colored glasses for yesteryear, but sometimes there is a grain of truth to it.

"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"

That's good, though. Aaaacentuate the positive and all that. You're right. It always seems to be ever so trendy to bemoan THESE as the darkest times. I just don't think it's usually true.

Anyway, good post.