The number of people who read for entertainment is steadily declining in the United States. In lieu of reading, children, teenagers, and adults alike are spending their leisure time in front of the T.V., in the movie theater, or in front of their computer screen.

In 2007, the office of research and analysis published an article on the National Endowment for the Arts website titled “To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence.” Their study conducted from 1992 to 2002 stated that reading was on the decline for both young adults and teenagers alike. See charts from the 2007 report below:

chart one

snip two

Reading isn’t popular

Reading has been portrayed as being a secluded, introverted, “loner” activity. To some people, a “reader” looks like someone working and thinking in isolation while staring at pages of paper. There is no perceived value to this isolated experience like time spent with another person at the movies might be. Even though some would consider reading in the same space as another person a social activity, most teenagers and young adults in today’s world are not interested in reading a book. People want the distraction of the television or music to be going on in the background if they are even going to attempt to concentrate on a book. William Powers, an author and journalist talks about books in his own book Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age:

“In a multi-tasking world where pure focus is harder and harder to come by, paper’s seclusion from the Web is an emerging strength. There’s nothing like holding a sheaf of beautifully designed pages in your hands. The whole world slows down, and your mind with it.”

He believes in reading as a form of escapism from today’s hectic life where it seems that nothing can be moving fast enough.

There is plenty of good entertainment on all mediums that Americans choose to spend their free time with. Thousands of movies are released every year, television shows can consume months worth of time, video games become more and more story driven like a user played movie, and books just can’t compete with their long, drawn out, difficult to understand sentences, and not to mention terrible graphics. Understandably since there are only 24 hours in a day and there are more and more ways to be entertained, something is going to fall to the wayside. In today’s world it is books. They are old and require high levels of attention, whereas other forms of media are all mediums of distraction.

Why did readers spike between 2002 and 2008? After twenty years of readership declination, why would more readers, especially young adults, become more interested in reading? The answer is in the emergence of the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes and Noble Nook as well as tablet readers such as the iPad. As of November 2012, some 25% of Americans ages 16 and older own tablet computers such as iPads or Kindle Fires, up from 10% who owned tablets in late 2011 (Lee Raine and Maeve Duggan). E-book reading and ownership has spiked since the tablets came out early in 2007. As books have taken the leap into the technological era more and more readers have left the paper pages and clunky books for the sleek portable libraries that the e-book readers promise.

ebook graph

Quantity vs. Quality

The way that paper books affect the brain is completely different than how electronic reading affects the brain. In reality spending less time reading and more time with other sources of entertainment may well be creating a generation of stupefied students. This decrease in reading and decrease in quality reading has had pretty hefty implications in students. With lowered standardized test scores as well as lower levels of reading comprehension. This all was until 2008 when the NEA released another study done from 1982 to 2008 named Reading on the Rise. They found, that the number of adults who read literature went up from 2002 to 2008 (See Chart)

snip 3

In the book The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, he writes about neuroplasticity in concern to the brain and how it reacts to the internet as well as books. Take into consideration a smoker. Every time a smoker takes out a cigarette it carves deeper a neuro-pathway for pleasure, further solidifying that cigarette as the fastest way to pleasure. The internet is the metaphorical cigarette, in today’s society the internet, movies, television shows are entertaining and takes no original thought, whereas a book is a medium of attention and imagination. When e-books came on the scene they changed the medium of books into more of a web like experience inserting links, and other side notes to a page of a book in order to distract us.

According to a study done by PEW, printed books still dominate the medium in comparison to e-readers, but e-readers are not going away anytime soon. E-book sales have grown at a steady rate over the past few years. But books are back in style, more books are being read, however, if it is not the same quality of reading does the quality truly matter?

(Charts thanks to NEA’s studies from 2007 and 2008)
(Cover Photo Thanks to NPR)