Studies: Adults aren't reading as much
Ann DeBroux reads a book called "I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman" by Nora Ephron in her Appleton home. Post-Crescent photo by Kirk Wagnerfrom the Post Crescent, Sept. 11, 2007
By Cheryl Sherry Post-Crescent staff writer
Karla Breister likens her love of books to warm, gooey, straight-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies; it's hard to eat just one.
"If you have a craving and it's there … that's how I am with books," said the 36-year-old Fond du Lac woman and wismoms.com forum participant. "If I have them in the house, I will read them."
A recent week in late August found Breister catching up on three — yes, three — bestsellers, "Nineteen Minutes," "Bungalow 2" and "The Memory Keeper's Daughter," two of which were recommended by the wismoms.com book club. Her favorite? "Nineteen Minutes" by Jodi Picoult.
Breister's reading habit goes against the results of a poll released in late August by the Associated Press-Ipsos, which found one in four adults read no books last year. But of the three adults who did read, Breister and other women as well as senior citizens were the most avid readers. Religious works and popular fiction were their top choices.
While book sales tracked by the Association of American Publishers — the national trade association of the United States book publishing industry — saw children's and young adult book sales flourish in June (22.2 percent increase in hardcover books, 7.1 percent in paperback books), they also found sales in the adult mass market category year-to-date were down 2 percent.
The fact that fewer adults are reading is difficult to measure, said Bill Gillard, published author and assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley. "You can look at those survey results … but there is so much electronic media these days it may not tell you the whole story about the actual amount of reading people are actually doing. They may be doing a ton of reading, but maybe not the wood pulp books.
"Also book sales might not tell the story because libraries are circulating books, too. It's a complicated picture," Gillard said.
According to the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, conducted by the Census Bureau in 2002 at the request of the National Endowment of the Arts and released in 2004, fewer than half of American adults read literature. Although the NEA survey found literary reading is on the decline for both sexes, women do read more literature than men. Slightly more than one-third of men now read literature, it found.
While Breister is a ravenous reader, her husband, Terry, 39, hasn't finished a book in years, she said.
"He does read the newspaper and magazines that pertain to his interests, but he's just not really interested, especially in fiction," she said.
Reading takes time, and that also might factor into fewer readers, if that is indeed the case. In 2001, author and professor Mario Vargas Llosa's article on the premature obituary of the book, which ran in The New Republic, a journal of politics and the arts, said literature has become a female activity. Men, he said, often use the excuse that they are too busy.
"According to this widespread conception, literature is a dispensable activity, no doubt lofty and useful for cultivating sensitivity and good manners, but essentially an entertainment, an adornment that only people with time for recreation can afford," he wrote.
Literature, he said, is not a luxury pastime, but rather "one of the most primary and necessary undertakings of the mind."
Gillard wonders if there is any kind of guilt associated with spending, say five hours, reading when a person could be doing something more productive.
"Maybe that plays a role, too. I don't know."
Ann DeBroux of Appleton loves to read, but like many young mothers has to arrange a time to read either when daughter Gracie is in bed or at her once-a-month women's book club, which began five years ago.
"All but one of us at the time were stay-at-home moms. We kind of thought this was a neat outlet for us — we all love reading and some of us like to write — and thought it would at least make time to read one book a month, then discuss it," DeBroux said.
The studies failed to take into consideration the estimated 117,378 libraries in the United States. While book sales may be down, the American Library Association found public library use continues to grow.
Despite the continued growth in online resources, the most recent comprehensive federal data shows the number of visits to public libraries increased 61 percent from 1994 to 2004, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. While all library collections have increased, the number of e-books in these libraries has jumped more than 68 percent from 2002 to 2004.
Terry Dawson, director of the Appleton Public Library, said local library use also is on the increase.
"Changes in technology have meant changes in use, but I'm happy to say that circulation of books, for all ages, has continued to grow," Dawson said. "Although book use has grown more slowly than media use, it has increased."
In 2002, the Appleton library had 33,617 adult registered borrowers. Currently the number is 37,621 — an increase of 11.9 percent in five years. In 2002, 337,563 adult books (both fiction and nonfiction) were circulated, and in 2006, the last complete year for circulation numbers, the library circulated 380,108 adult books, an increase of 12.6 percent in adult book use.
"So it seems that book use is growing slightly faster than the number of borrowers," Dawson said. "The grain of salt here is that media use (DVDs, recorded books) is growing faster than book use. Nonetheless, book use shows continued growth."
Books on CD also go like gangbusters at the library as well as downloadable audio-books.
"But the printed book still has a lot of vitality, even if losing some market share," Dawson said.
Books are not only Dawson's job, but also his way of life.
"Speaking personally, I usually have a book on CD in my car, another book on my iPod, and I carry a lot of electronic books on my Palm Treo," he said. "That's in addition to the stack of regular bound books next to my chair. But I may be an atypical book geek and techno-nerd."
"Reading," Gillard said, "is a solitary activity that's completely dependent upon your imagination. To the extent young people and beyond … can cultivate our imaginations, the richer life we can have. … What I explain to my students in class is the book has no existence; it's squiggles on wood pulp. Whatever meaning it has comes from our own mind and the creation of it, which is fundamentally different from the creation of an excellent film, which arrives to us as almost a complete finished product. You just have to sit there and receive it.
"But it's the act of creating the characters in our minds, hearing their voices that makes it such a valuable and wonderful experience. Reading is harder, which might be a reason people are shying away from books, too. Compared to TV, it's hard. And it's long and it's slow and there's a very delayed gratification."
Although Breister can't imagine not reading, when asked how her world might change without books, she said, "Well, my house would be cleaner. It's how I relax, how I escape. It's just my thing. Some people run or go for a bike ride. I read. I would be tense all the time if I didn't read."
DeBroux, who averaged reading about four books each month this summer, said her "house is still pretty clean. My lawn still got mowed and my family wears clean clothes and we do manage to eat."
Cheryl Sherry: 920-993-1000, ext. 249, or firstname.lastname@example.org
How to instill a love for reading in children
A love of reading begins in the home. Here are some tips to encourage your children:
- Teach children to respect books at an early age.
- Read aloud to children; even teens enjoy being read to.
- Set up a daily free reading time.
- Visit the library often.
- Children love to read favorite books over and over again, and it's good for them.
- Allow children to read books that are easy for them; it makes reading less of a chore.
- Casually talk about the books they read.
- Set up a reading incentive program.
- Keep a book in the car and the bathroom.
- Begin collecting books for your home library.
Writers pick their Top 10 books
Who knows more about great books than great writers? That's the premise behind J. Peder Zane's book, "The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books," which was published in January. Zane, book editor of the Raleigh News & Observer, asked 125 British and American writers to provide a list of their choices for the top 10 greatest works of fiction of all time. Authors included Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Stephen King and Michael Chabon. Here's the list in order of popularity:
- "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy
- "Madame Bovary" by Gustave Flaubert
- "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy
- "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov
- "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain
- "Hamlet" by William Shakespeare
- "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- "In Search of Lost Time" by Marcel Proust
- "The Stories of Anton Chekhov"
- "Middlemarch" by George Eliot