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  • May 2007
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The Parodox of Ungrateful Literates

how many books did you read last year? according to a colleague, if you read 5 or more, you joined only 1% of americans! yeah, apparently only 1% of americans read 5 books a year. i found that number a) alarming and b) hard to believe. but as i started to think of it, i was having a hard time thinking of what i had read in the past year. (i mean beyond stuff that i have to read for work – which is a stinking boatload of stuff!)

i decided to do some websearching to see if i could confirm or deny this statistic. i didn’t spend to much time on it and didn’t find those specific numbers, but did find the following:

Only 32% of the U.S. population has ever been in a bookstore.
42% of U.S. college graduates never read another book.
58% of the U.S. adult population never reads another book after high school.
70% of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
80% of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.

i don’t know about you, but i find those statistics a little depressing. we are tied for 1st place with 21 other countries with a 99.9% literacy rate, but over half of high school graduates never read another book? here’s a map of literacy rates around the world (source):

Literacy Rates Around the World

of course, literacy rates measure the ability to read and write in general, not the ability or inclination to pick up a book and read it. indeed there are other forms of written materials that are read everyday besides books: newspapers, magazines, and a plethora of electronic sources. and perhaps its this last category that is keeping book reading down in america. but i really don’t think the 58% of high school grads are choosing to read online over and above printed media.

literacy rates often indicate positive trends in education levels and socio-economic well-being in a country, as well as lower poverty and infant mortality rates. but what about highly literate societies full of non-readers? it’s like having the vote, but not using it. being literate without reading is a waste of the time and resources invested in teaching someone to read. it’s also an incredible waste of mental capacity it would seem. the least literate nation on earth? apparently Burkina Faso with 12% literacy rate. as in many things, we have a precious resource and national commodity that people are happy to waste, when there are others who would be very happy to have the same skills. of course we cannot transfer literacy from one group to another (a la carbon credits – maybe we could purchase literacy credits – for every book a literate person does not read, it gets credited to the account of someone who can’t read yet in hopes of balancing the global literacy system)

anyways, after scanning my bookshelves, i was pleased to see that i had read more books last year than i could remember at first:

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. LeGuin
Beyond the Edge of the Sea – A modern sailor traces ancient sea-faring stories
The Odyssey – inspired to read by above
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events Book 1
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
Tales Before Tolkien – a short story anthology of folk/fairy tales Tolkien had/might have read
The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries – An anthology of Sherlock Holmes
Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Bridge to Terabithia
The Man Who Was Thursday – by GK Chesterton
Adirondack Explorations: Nature Writings of Verplanck Colvin
Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2
I’m Just Here for the Food by Alton Brown
The Audacity of Hope
by Barack Obama

ok – so that is around 16 books – i’m sure i might be missing some others – but that seems to be a fair representation of what i read last year (not counting work or devotional books). hmmm . . . it paints something of an interesting picture. a lot of them were re-reads, some of it young adult literature, most of it fiction. i read a lot of heavy stuff for work – theology, caregiving, homelessness & poverty, islam and other world religions, and i try to keep up on the news via weekly mags and daily internet bowsing. so it seems by the time i get to reading on my own, i am ready for some good ‘ol escapism. another interesting thing – of these 16, i think i only finished 7. hmmm . . . i won’t say what i finished and what i didn’t.

was there any other benefit in my reading these many pages last year beyond mere escapism? did i benefit intellectually? or at the very least cognitively? i would like to believe so. but then again i’m a book-snob. i have 4 bookcases between home and office, and our son has his own bookcase full of children’s books. and maybe that’s what this all goes back to. sure we’re all taught to read in school (for the most part), but maybe what truly matters is what happens at home. i was talking to another colleague about that fact this week. it seems like a love for reading may have a lot to do with our parent’s attitude toward reading.

so, what do you think? are we a nation of ungrateful literates, taking for granted the power and freedom that being literate brings? also, how many non-work, non-devotional books did you read last year? (can you top president bush’s 60 last year?)  what were they? what do they say about you?



12 Responses

  1. Ok – wow! It’s almost like i have fallen out of the blogosphere! i can’t believe i posted this a month ago! a couple of quick replies before i’m off to bed:

    Scott: yeah, i thought those stats were a little suspicious too, but you know me – alarmism is always en vogue. in looking back i noted the stat was for “buying or reading” a book. wonder if that impacts your calculations. probably not. anyways i found those stats on a website from a guy in the publishing industry – biased perhaps?

    David: > a new post?!?! i’m sure one on SLA is rattling around, but i’ve been sitting on one about gardening that will probably have to come out first.

    Greg: Ahhh yes, the wonderful world of children’s literature – i too have absorbed a fair amount of that this year – as i am sure Scott has too. nothing nearly as advanced as Nancy Drew yet. =) i also appreciated the Augustine quote. i too am a skimmer – or maybe more accurately a jumper (I will read the chapters that seem interesting to me in the order I like) except when it comes to fiction then i’m usually glued to each successive page (if it’s interesting). not sure what this says about me, but am pondering it. any idea where Augustine says this?

    Another interesting side note to this whole discussion – i am starting to think about what books to pack to ship with me overseas. > i’m not looking forward to trying to convince my wife why i need to take XYZ books. =)

  2. Alas Brian you are helping re-prove my point of being the under-educated one in the family. Most of my reading these days involves the newspaper and magazine, of which I always have a healthy pile of unread copies. My book reading has been typically limited to excercise time–it encourages me to get on teh stationary bike for a half hour or so. But I don’t know that I did enough of that in the past year to get to the 5 book magic number, and none of them have been nearly as weighty as what everybody else seems to be reading. “Drinking with Calvin and Luther” (thanks!) was fun though, as was re-reading the Deryni novels. At the moment I’m theoretically reading CS Lewis’s “The Great Divorce” but the weather has been nice enough that I’ve been doing more running around outside with Ethan than riding the stationary bike for excercise, so I haven’t picked it up in almost 2 weeks.

    I found a couple references to book sales (excluding profeesional/educational) being around $12B/year recently. If I’m doing my math right, according to your stats, only 20% of the us population buy books, then that would average $208 per year per book buyer. That only counts new books, and most of the purchases we make are used, so our family certainly is below that average.

    So my gut feeling is that it is likely that that statistics about how much money is spent on books each year are relatively accurate. Given that number + used book sales, my guess is that the premise that only 20% of the us population buys books is incorrect. If it is correct, then that minority is spending a relatively large amount (it seems to me) on books. One caveat–some of that $12B is non-book sales–magazines and other media, so that would be a possible way that the stats re. just books could possibly be correct.

    I’d certainly like to think that more than 20% of the us population buy at least one book a year!

  3. Greg- any idea where the Augustine insight comes from? I’d like to take a look at that.

    My reading has taken a huge hit as I’m trying to finish a distance education greek class… brutal.

    Brian… looking for your next post. Maybe something on language aquisition? I’m just saying…

  4. OK, so I know that I am REALLY late in chiming in, but that is the way it goes for me.

    I wish I could put a list together off the top of my head but fear it will be either drastically inaccurate and/or incomplete. And, before I even start, here is a true confession: I am a classic skimmer. I read but rarely finish books. I will start lots of books, look over the table of contents, thumb through the bibliography (ok, geekiness emerging more clearly all the time), and read over an appealing chapter or two. Sometimes my interest is not maintained though often my attention is off to some other place or in some other direction. So books that I have read, errr skimmed, errr looked over:

    Obama’s autobiography
    Yancey’s “Prayer”
    “Hamlet in Purgatory”
    O’Malley’s “Four Cultures of the West”
    Carter’s “Peace Not Apartheid” — really a VERY quick skim
    Tenney’s “God Chasers” — maybe slightly over a year ago
    “For Men Only” + “For Women Only”
    some book on the greatest minds that I can’t recall the title

    And I could add about 15 children’s books which were riveting reads, like “Maybe My Baby” and even a Nancy Drew book which counts only if what I hear by osmosis is a “read.” And, there are a bunch of books on world history that would bore anyone and a few quick skims on some intro philosophy books by William Durant that I worked my way through–but I thought those would fall under the vocational arena. Also, whenever I teach a book, I am always skimming through it to prepare, so that could really make my list much more impressive but really if I was to be honest, my list is really pretty short. In thinking about this, I must confess that I want it to be longer–there is even a temptation to add books to make me look even more impressive. Why? Only God knows — maybe I just want to keep up with the Stans and Brians and Daves of the world.

    Also, if anyone is still reading now, one of Augustine’s insights into reading is that the way you read a book and the way you live your life cannot be separated. I think it is actually quite profound upon more and more reflection. What we read, how we read, for what purpose we read, and what we learn from our reading offer great insight into the way we actually live our lives. I love to really dig deeply into this idea with students who gain insight into reading and discover that they often only read because they are “forced” to read. And this tells us something about us. And even my desire to present a longer list and/or pad the list tells me something about me–maybe more than I really care to think about at nearly 10 PM when I should likely be reading something valuable 🙂

    Have a good day/night!

  5. well, i’m sure that books on “fluvial processes” are fascinating, but “bed mixing” sounds downright salacious to me. =) stan – your reading list is seems heavy-hitting as always. lot’s of deep material there. found your visual media comment insightful. is this tendency to escape into the visual rather than literary world part of the trend away from reading in general? in your case, obviously not, but in the case of many others in society tv, movies, and the internet have been replacing books and print media. is there a new standard of visual literacy which needs to be measured and studied as well. does our society communicate more through visual media (meaning text-less visual media) than written media?
    i recently came across the term “visualcy” that seems to relate to these kind of ideas. i had not heard it before, but found the term to be both compelling and disturbing at the same time. compelling because it seems obvious that visual communication is so important in our society. disturbing because i am still partial to communication through the written word and feel strongly that anyone who can read and write have access to profoundly important means of expressing themselves and engaging with the rest of humanity. not everyone who can read and write will generate weighty philosophical treatises, but all, with minimal help can communicate their most important thoughts and feelings in a note to a loved one, or a paper for school, etc. but shoot and compose a video? is this a highly specialized skill only available to a visual elite? of coure youtube may be proving that visual communication can be a populist movement. perhaps i am fearful of becoming a rotting relic in the ditch of the communication superhighway of the future.

    thanks for the comments, sorry for the ramble.

  6. oops… fluvial, not fluBial. that was probably a major faux pas.

  7. yes. ‘flubial processes’. i think i’ll read that next. definitely.

  8. I guess its not fair that I get to count church books since they are not ‘work related’ for me – but i also read several books with titles like ‘fluvial processes’ and ‘numerical modeling’ and ‘bed mixing’

  9. Hmm

    Off the top oc my head
    Descent into Hell – Charles Williams
    Confessions of a Reformation Rev – Mark Driscol
    Emerging Worship – Dan Kimbal
    Emerging Churches – Gibbs and Bolger
    Becoming Conversent with the Emerging Church – Carson
    The Baby whisperer
    The Narnian – Jacobs
    On Christian Doctrine – Augustine
    GK Chesterton’s Poems
    Silver Chair and Voyage of the Dawn Treader (re-read w/ Amanda)
    Out of Silent Planet – Lewis
    The Question of God: Lewis and Freud – Armand Nicholi
    The Idiot – FD (listened to this one)
    The Trees of Pride – Chesterton (listened to this one too)

    I’ve been really into listening to Russian novel recently, but other than that, most of the fiction I read I either read with Amanda (like the Chronicles and the Space Trilogy) or in search of good illustrations. I think i reserve escapism for visual media.

  10. David – awesome link – thanks!

  11. just stumbled across this about ways to help your kids love to read. thought it was relevant to your post.


  12. i’m afraid that you’re on to something here. those of us who enjoy reading may be unaware of the statistics you quote because we likely socialize with other book-lovers. i do think some of our nation’s literacy has been channeled to the internet. the advent of blogs and social networking sites like facebook and myspace have perhaps taken away from older forms of reading. since i started blogging i’ve kept a sidebar with my current reads as way to spread the love. that list has shrunk considerably since my greek class kicked in.

    no way can i top “w’s” 60 books a year. if i were to guess i’d say i average about 2 per month, but many of those are related to my pastoral responsibilities and interests. the last “pure fun” book was The Worst Hard Time about the dust bowl. really good read.

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