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.

Dec. 1-16, 2021 Gallup poll

Dec. 1-16, 2021 Gallup poll
Dec. 1-16, 2021 Gallup poll

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. Jonesarticle, 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.

The reading room in Spain’s Senate in Madrid

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.

The Palais Bourbon Library in Seine, France

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.

Published by Robert Q Watson

During my first six decades on this earth, I lived life at great heights often on the razor’s edge. Consequently, I have enjoyed incredible successes and endured mind-numbing failures. Truthfully, I have had a hell of a view.

5 thoughts on “Books.

  1. Very timely post for me. I have noticed that my time spent reading books (as opposed to online newspapers, online magazine articles, and blogs) has taken a nose dive. I separate the aforementioned online reading from “true” social media like Instagram, Facebook, etc. because I am simply using the convenience of electronics to access this media.

    Back to books. I have definitely recognized my lack of focus as the main impetus to my book reading. I am challenging myself to read one book a month this year. Hopefully that gets me back on track.

    I agree that reading is integral to elevating our minds through the very exercise of focusing on the task. Very interesting post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I appreciate your comments. Researchers suggest that our quality and quantity of time spent deep in thought has been diminishing for over 150 years. Diminished time reading is another symptom of that change. Again, thank you.🙏🙏

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You know I find it interesting that as a formerly ferocious reader two things have affected my length of time with a book:

    Lack of attention span
    Tired eyes

    Perhaps snippets of social media (twitter et al) have modified our brain cells in terms of focus and attention span… I think this is more true than not after witnessing my teens, one who used to be a ferocious reader of books, were in lockdown for almost 22 consecutive months here in Toronto. Two years of forced homeschooling on screens, no diversions, no socializing, no activities… now at least one kid tells me she can’t focus for long anymore, thinks she has a condition. And the books, stacked beside her bed, remain unread. It makes me want to cry…

    For me, aging plays a part. My eyes get tired by evening (and as a contact lens wearer, this affects my eyes even more in terms of dryness which I feel especially after I remove my lenses). When I go to bed with my book, physical or digital, I find it difficult to read past one chapter because my eyes get teary and tired. I used to stay up half the night reading entire books, never mind just a chapter…now, I just can’t do it anymore. Perhaps others feel the same way … I have an aunt in her late 60s who goes to bed with audio books. She’s still ‘reading’ but not with her eyes…

    The world has changed and the pandemic has affected future generations of readers, but I don’t think all hope is lost. Perhaps we have just adapted to a different style of reading.

    Let’s hope we produce more quality and less crap to keep future generations of readers intrigued, regardless of the method of publishing. 🙂

    Wonderful post, Mr. Watson.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The initial research on the impact of social media and the Internet suggests that we have adapted to a shallower form of media consumption. My guess is that it’s culturally cyclical and gains in slowing life down will happen. I’m not sure will ever go back to the 1950s 1960s kind of life with only three channels on the TV. Additionally, like you aging has slowed me down a little. I find my eyes getting tired after about an hour and sleep comes quickly. Thank you so much for your comments. I appreciate you.🙏🙏

      Liked by 1 person

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