Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Age that Reading Died

A while back, I wrote an editorial for Dark Wisdom magazine (issue #8, that produced quite a bit of interest. As that particular issue is sold out at many locations, I figured I'd re-ignite the topic by posting the editorial here (slightly modified):

For decades readers, writers, and publishers have speculated upon the future of the printed word. Much ink and paper has been dedicated to predictions that some day electronic media will replace the archaic “printed word.” After all, e-texts are low cost, take little space, and can even have “content on demand.” However, all of these advantages are commonly countered with arguments that rely upon the “senses”: the feel, weight, and smell of a printed book can never be replaced. To thwart this, manufacturers have tried to produce reading-pads, or displays that in many ways mimic books — feel, heft, and ease of use (such as flipping a page with a touch) are all existing and proposed technologies. Still the debate still rages, with many publishers straddling the fence, producing both printed and electronic material. But there might be something overlooked in this on-going debate. Regardless of form, will there be anyone to read in the future?

Recently in the U.S. the National Education Center for Statistics (NCES) presented a literacy survey spanning from 1992 to 2003. The results do not bode well for print or e-books. The survey of “prose” readers are divided into several categories, with “Proficient” at the top of the scale, defined as a reader capable of understanding complex prose — this includes skills such as analyzing and making inferences from a work such as a novel or a short story. Other categories are “Below Basic,” “Basic,” and “Intermediate.” The NCES defines “Intermediate” as possessing “skills necessary to perform simple and everyday literacy activities.” This includes comprehending “simple” prose and understanding an author’s overall intention. Furthermore, what the survey revealed is that 15% of the U.S. population possessed Proficient literacy skills in 1992, with the remainder falling into the lower categories. In 2003 that 15% number had dropped to 13%, a figure the NCES considers to be a significant decrease. As for the Intermediate range, the number raised from 43% in 1992 to 44% in 20033. Overall, the indications are clear, the number of skilled readers is decreasing in the United States.

Another interesting finding is that in 1992, 16% of the overall Proficient readers were males, and 14% were females. By the turn of the century, the 2003 figures indicate a dramatic decrease among the males — 13% — while females remained level at 14%.

Accompanying these figures is also a shift in the age group of Proficient readers. In 1992 the largest body of readers in all categories fell into the 25-39 age group. This portion accounted for 33% of all readers. Eleven years later, and that group has dropped to 28% — once again, a shift the NCES considers to be significant. Where did the readers go? It appears some have aged, as the 40-49 age bracket increased from 17% in 1992 to 20% in 2003. And perhaps some of the borderline readers dropped into the next age group: 50-64. These readers increased from 16% to 21%, yet another significant change. Meanwhile, the remainder of the categories has either remained static or decreased.

To the Proficient reader, what this indicates is the number of readers is growing older, and not increasing in numbers. In fact, Proficient readers and male readers are on the decline, and female readers seem to be relatively unchanged. Just for the record, I am classifying “readers” as those from the Intermediate and Proficient categories.

These literacy survey results might change the locus of the print/electronic argument; without people to read texts, the format makes little difference. Perhaps the future isn’t heading toward a digital library, but one where reading is a lost skill — something more akin to the ancients’ view: a magical art. Of course, many would argue that audio books will be the new future. At first glance it seems that literacy skills are not required to listen to prose. That is not entirely true, however. Having a book read aloud is perhaps more difficult for the listener to comprehend, as the prose structure and language used are often overlooked. Hearing the printed word also obscures elements of fiction such as structure and the play of words. However, with today’s audio books, actors are sometimes left to interpret the text, and musical scores provide the emotional cues for the listener.

Maybe this negates the necessity for Proficient literacy skills, as those re-producing the book perform the required interpretations. If so, then maybe the issue at hand is not the future of the printed word, but the future of the audience. Will there be anyone to read or even listen to prose? Is writing itself, and not the medium, facing a dilemma, perhaps in its final chapter, an epilogue of extinction? I certainly enjoy listening to audio books, but I often find myself caught-up in the accessories, wondering how much is owed to the “reader” and production, and how much is owed to the author. I’ve certainly found some audio books that are better when professionally read. Simple vocal inflection and strong acting can do wonders for poor writing.

This discussion intentionally avoids film, even though many propose it is the emerging medium (a good text on this is Movie Made America: A Cultural History of American Film, by Robert Sklar; it argues that Hollywood is a part of American culture — where else would film stars become elected leaders?). And with fewer readers, there are less and less people who say “the film wasn’t as good as the book.” Rather, I often hear, “the book ripped-off the film.” So is the question really print or electronic? Or are we beyond that? Readers appear to be a slowly dying group.
With more books in print than in any previous point in history, who is it that is doing the buying? Maybe we’ve been focused on the wrong point all these years. There isn’t a battle between print and electronic books; it isn’t one or the other that will vanish; it seems it is the readers who are disappearing. To read or not to read? Is that the question?


Vwriter said...

When I saw that there were no other comments to this fine article, I grew afraid that you were to late. There was no more an audience capable of interpreting the words on your website. After brooding about that for a while, a still worse fear came over me, that although some scattered few could still read the words on your blog, none could respond because they had become passive.

Your posting has caused me to think quite a bit, and maybe too much for one response, so I will most likely add a few comments to this posting from time to time.

Can you remember back to when people that read were considered passive? I believe that there are gradients of passivity, like Dante's descending circles of Hell. Two of the electronic media that you discussed were lower circles of passivity that reading. Audio tapes and movies (although you avoided film, I'm going to use it make a point) are certainly the media of choice of those in the lower circles of passivity than readers.

The mental modalities of someone reading a book and another watching a movie are, in my opinion, considerably different. A reader's mind is in a more active state. What do you think of this proposition? I think that buried within this aspect of the reading experience is the answer to your concerns about literacy and the reading experience in general.

The tests and results you mentioned don't seem to address the cause behind the results. Can you tell me if they do?

What I have noticed is that most people have not been educated as to what the difference is between reading and other types of story presentation such as stage plays, audio books, and movies.

In sales, the presentation criteria should embrace product features, functions, and benefits. It is this last area that I believe to be the key to why Proficient Literacy is declining. The populace has never been well educated as the benefits of reading over the other experiences. The benefits spring from the activity of the mind required to be a Proficient reader.

It's common to point out that a key reason that this might in fact be so is that a reader has to create their own internal world from the indications and inferences provided by a writer. So much more is provided by a movie that the viewer need only sit back and be influenced.
With the advent of the microwave, even the acquisition of kettle corn is easier. Surround sound can was over the viewer. The Japanese have come quite a ways with scent technology so that the mentally limp viewer need not even imagine smell. I remember that when an old horror movie called "The Tingler" was released, certain of the seats in our theater were wired to provide mild electric shocks to remind us that the Tingler could be roaming anywhere in the darkness between the seats. We would jump at the slight jolt and scream with horror that we didn't need to imagine.

A reader must engage his imagination. Someone watching a movie need not and in fact seldom does. Reading is an exercise in creativity. Listening to audio books or watching movies is an exercise in influence. Marshal Mcluhan was substantiall correct about media, but I believe that he stopped short of developing his theories to completion because he was afraid that thinking too much would case him to miss the Tonight Show.

Mcluhan too, missed the benefits of an active mind, but I believe he never missed a comedy monologue.

Ryan said...

I read this in the magazine and was horrified by the numbers. I've been reading from the age I could hold a book. It is more than a past time for me, it is the way I escape the world. I can get away from work and just relax. I guess I just assumed that the world was becoming MORE literate because books or magazines are to be found everywhere. You can imagine my surprise when I read that readers are on the decline. How can this be? We have literacy programs, book mobiles, books on the internet, magazines everywhere. When I go to a bookstore the shelves are overrun with magazines and books. I figure it is the same people reading that were reading a decade ago.

I agree with Vwriter that reading a book or watching a movie are different things. I know everyone always blames the movies for this, that and the other, but it seems that movies have made everything easier. I confess, I sometimes watch a movie to relax. But for me they have never replaced books.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Charles Gramlich wrote a posting about the decline in literacy on his blog, too..must be something in the air.

Literacy became widespread, at least in some parts of the world, with the arrival of the industrial age and the increace in leisure time and the advent of public education.

That's a relatively brief period in history.

Today the printed word competes with all manner of media and interactive activity. It is no longer one of the only ponies in town. Also, I think one should consider how class figures into literacy. With the increasing solidification of a class system in America, maybe this is a byproduct? I wonder if one could chart a graph showing the decline in literacy with the increase in the disparity between the rich and the poor.

Rick said...

Hi William:

Have you ever considered the idea that reading books has another limitation in the minds of potential readers, namely that works of written fiction are generally the work of one individual produced on an extraordinarily low budget compared to most alternative forms of entertainment experience? Compare the cost of producing a movie, for example, to that of producing a book. Teams of creative individuals pool their efforts. The large budgets attract the best and finest in that respective industry. Books are the efforts of only one individual (again, generally speaking), and so the results are limited by the creative scope of that one person. Rarely can the efforts of one match the results of the many.

For example, imagine if with my resources, I began building cars by myself, how well would my product compete with the entire Ford Motor Company? I would have to engineer everything myself, assemble everything myself, etc. Ford assigns a team of talented people to the project.

Maybe if teams of top notch, talented individuals redesigned the reading experience, interest in reading might increace. Books lack the interactivity of video games. They lack the multiple sensory experience of movies with dialogue and visuals and manipulative music employed to enhance the sense of interactivity and participation in the experience.

Engineers redesigning the reading experience? Who knows? What do you think? You come from a multi-disciplanary background- what are the chances it could work?

William Jones said...


That is a good argument. I suppose if I were to speculate upon it, I'd say that films are arguable guided by the vision of the director -- such as a Hitchcock film. But that isn't to take away from the other contributors, such as the editor, director of cinematography, director of lighting, secondary directors, etc. But many who study film feel that the main thrust is that of the director (the “auteur” is a term (French) commonly used, and it is easy see “author” there). In fact, for many people, the drawing attraction is the director, just as with the author of a book. Often, the others are lost in the end credits that are seldom viewed (particularly on cable and broadcast channels that speed through them to get to a commercial or the next program).

For the sake of making a counter argument, I could say that published fiction has an editor, artist (cover), design (text/cover layout), and countless others who help produce the work – and can be an expensive proposition, although usually not on the scale of film. I’m not sure the individuals working in fiction receive the accolades of what might be considered their Hollywood counterparts, but their efforts do go into the creation of the work (sometimes bringing the best together). Also, there are many multi-author novel and short fiction collaborations, as well as anthologies that bring together various talents. Sometimes the efforts are pooled, other times they are combined by the anthology’s “director.”

Certainly the printed word is undergoing re-engineering. Yet, there is a skill that is involved in reading that requires part of the talent to belong to the reader. I believe this is true in films, but sometimes the additional sensory aspects of the medium compensate the viewer if the film isn’t “read.” That is to say, it is possible to watch a film for the SFX, giving little attention to the theme, and still the film is popular.

Jeff and Kim said...

The way I see it, the real point of books, films, and any other entertainment medium is to tell a story. Usually it's when writers/producers/directors forget this that their product starts to loose value.

The real remarkable thing is that story telling itself has survived each and every technological leap. Beowulf is hitting theaters soon, and for the average American, this will be there first and last meetings with the notorious Grendel. Unless, of course, some English teacher forced all the poetic lines down their throat in their ninth grade English class.

Even if print dies, and, god forbid, literature as well, as long as the story remains the central focus, I don't think we can go wrong.

We can all argue which medium is better, they all have their perks. But what matters is that with all this money spent on Beowulf, with the hundreds of people that received paychecks creating it (some of them more money then I'll ever see in my life), is that the millions of Americans that pay ten bucks to see it in theaters are just as captivated as its the tale' first telling. The first Beowulf audience was quite different from us. Different culturally, ethically, and linguistically. But we have one thing in common, We both find Grendel really scary. And if someone gets you to leave your lights on with a story, or maybe rethink your life, or even just makes you laugh, then they've done their job, no matter what medium they've used.