Is reading still fundamental? Do the deep narratives in books help us make sense of our world?
I just finished reading “Stolen Focus – Why You Can’t Pay Attention” by Johann Hari released this month. The book was very timely, as I planned to write about the Gallup article released on January 20, 2022, entitled, “Americans Reading Fewer Books Than in Past.” Allow me to excerpt Hari’s work a couple of times to get us started and hopefully spur you to get a copy of his book.
“The proportion of Americans who read books for pleasure is now at its lowest level ever recorded. The American Time Use Survey—which studies a representative sample of 26,000 Americans—found that between 2004 and 2017 the proportion of men reading for pleasure had fallen by 40 percent, while for women, it was down by 29 percent.”
“The opinion-poll company Gallup found that the proportion of Americans who never read a book in any given year tripled between 1978 and 2014.”
This trend has escalated to the point that by 2017, the average American spent seventeen minutes a day reading books and 5.4 hours on their phone.”
“Complex literary fiction is particularly suffering. For the first time in modern history, less than half of Americans read literature for pleasure. It’s been less well studied, but there seem to be similar trends in Britain and other countries: between 2008 and 2016 the market for novels fell by 40 percent. In one single year—2011—paperback fiction sales collapsed by 26 percent.”
Below is the Gallup Poll from late last year.
Troubling data for our literacy. The new data on book reading reinforces the decline in the popularity of reading with Americans consuming an average of three fewer books last year. Compared to the number of books read five years ago and typically read for the past three decades this year’s data marks a troubling decline. And, remember, the COVID-19 lockdown should have been a boom to quiet reading time.
According to Gallup’s Jeffrey M. Jones‘ article, the decline is not because fewer Americans are not reading a single book that percentage held steady at 17%, but because Americans who read regularly are reading fewer books. The changes are especially pronounced among the most typically voracious book readers, namely, college graduates, women, and older Americans. Please remember these polls are aspirational, meaning as an individual wants to think positively about themselves, they tend to inflate their answers given to pollsters.
The basic challenge of the reduction in the reading of books is the absence of long-form narratives from our mental diets. But bigger issues lay beneath the surface of the data.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the world-renown author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience noticed in his research that one of the simplest and most common forms of flow that people experience in their lives is reading a book. Like other forms of flow, reading a book is being choked off in our culture of constant distraction.
For many of us, reading a book is the deepest form of focus we experience. We dedicate many hours of our life, coolly, calmly, sticking to one topic, and allow it to marinate in our minds. This is the medium through which most of the deepest advances in human thought over the past four hundred years have been figured out and explained. And that experience of reading a book is now in free fall according to all the polling data.
Flow, if you recall, is when we typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life. Our periods of flow or immersion in our art or craft transcends time. Many athletes, writers, or artists entering into the “flow” of their process find it supremely liberating.
In a final, more elegant measure of our attention spans, scientists studying Twitter found that in 2013 a topic would remain in the top fifty most-discussed subjects for 17.5 hours. By 2016 that had dropped to 11.9 hours. To combat the evidence that collective attention spans have been shrinking, books that draw us into their universe for long periods of time might be our antidote to the constant pull of our fast world.
Our collective memory and attention-spans are special areas of interest for our research team at Beyond the Hype. Stay tuned for more.