I try to keep an open mind about behaviors that seem foreign and inexplicable to me, but some remain baffling no matter how hard I try to understand them. That’s because I have no frame of reference or relevant experience with which to approach them. They’re like Cyrillic script: impenetrable.
Adults’ reading habits (or lack thereof) truly confound me. I love books so much. I enjoy the escape between the covers so thoroughly that every national survey about the rate of readers’ participation leaves me scratching my head. The general population’s disinterest in reading is senseless, stunning — and petrifying.
How can this be?
The latest report to cross my desk is the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2022 survey that tracks public participation in the arts. Though I admire all creative pursuits, my heart belongs to the written word for obvious reasons. I’m a journalist and a fiction writer, and my stock in trade is irretrievably tied to the habit of reading. In short, I have a vested interest in nurturing more and better readers.
The new NEA study underscores my long-held worry that we’re surrendering to ignorance, at best, or succumbing to stupidity, at worst. I do not doubt that reading makes you smarter, more empathetic and less stressed. It’s an excellent and fun brain exercise. But fewer of us are doing it.
The report found that less than half of us had read a book for pleasure in 2022. In the 12-month period that ended in July 2022, 48.5% of adults read one or more books. That was down from 52.7% in 2017, the last time the NEA did the survey. It was a sizable drop, though that percentage has been slipping for years. Between 2012 and 2017, for instance, reading fell by just under two percentage points.
Non-fiction fared the worst, with three of its four categories suffering “significant decline.” The percentage of adults reading a nonfiction book ranged from less than 15% to an unimpressive high of 18.4% percent, depending on the genre.
Fiction had little to cheer about, either. A miserly 37.6% had read a novel or a story, down four points between 2017 and 2022. Men were the most disengaged readers.
The habits of the younger generation hardly provide hope, adding salt to the wound. Recently released research into the 8-to-18 year-olds shows that fewer than half (43%) of kids say they enjoy reading in their free time, down from 58% in 2016. That’s a pretty steep drop too.
I could continue with more depressing figures from other studies, but I won’t. For somebody who grew up hiding under the covers to read into the night, news of this kind is hard to stomach. It breaks my heart, especially after spending a wonderful weekend attending the Miami Book Fair.
I cling to the hope that the fault lies not in the product but in the marketing. Book people like me must find better ways to introduce and share the joy of words. We must make reading as cool as a Kardashian knit jogger, as coveted as a Taylor Swift concert ticket, as essential as AirPods. In fact, maybe we can borrow a page from Apple’s marketing playbook.
We should also start with symbolic acts. Let’s move the smart TV to the corner of the living room and put a shelf of books where the screen once stood. Let’s host Super Bowl reading parties with chili and guac and a comfy recliner. Let’s gift a new novel for Christmas.
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Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at email@example.com or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.