There was a recent report in the decline in reading among the population of the United States. It seems that something like this comes out every few years, no doubt commissioned by publishers as a means of justifying losses to their shareholders or by nervous academics who fear for their cushy quasi-literary existence in the citadels of learning.
Between 1996 and 2005, there has been an increase of 152% in the number of books published in the United States. [“Books published per country per year”]
On the other hand, the US population has only increased about 20% during the same period.
Do we have fewer readers or too many books?
The publishing figures above do not take into account the huge explosion of text that appears on the Internet (like this article for instance).
However, just sticking to the idea of books:
In 1996 there were roughly 3,600 readers for each book published. In 2005, there are 1,700 readers for each book published.
I based this calculation on gross population which is probably not the way to do it. You would probably want to take a subset of likely readers, which, according for the NEA, is about 2% of the population:
Adjusted for likely readers, there were 73 readers for each book in 1996 and 35 readers for each book in 2005.
And yet, do we have that many new ideas? It’s something to think about, if you’re into that sort of thing.
I do not fear for the loss of a book reading public, as I do not believe a book reading public ever existed in the first place. Seems there is little to lamment in the loss of something that wasn’t. But how could I say such a thing? Isn’t that a heresy?
We might quibble about what constitutes a reading public: what sort of books they need to purchase in order to qualify, or how many books they need to read, or how many authors they can recognize and place with their works in a 30 second slide show… But does that really matter?
Books are about ideas. Sometimes those ideas take the form of stories and sometimes they are just splayed out plainly across the page, but in the end books are ideas trapped between cardboard covers. Therefore, a reading public is a public of ideas, a group of people who are open to exploring thoughts (new and old). And when placed within that context, can we say that we have ever had a true public of ideas?
I don’t think so. People are just too busy for ideas. There is too much work and too much “stuff”… I can’t even think of a proper word to give form to the goo that covers our lives and so I resort to calling it “stuff”. And with all of this stuff hanging about and gathering dust in the corners of our existence, what room is there for something so pointless as an idea?
The closest we come to ideas in our daily life is in the consumption of goods which represent icons of ideas. No one really knows what to do with a fancy new mobile phone (except to call someone and say that they are calling from the fancy new mobile phone). No really plans to conquer mountains when they buy a new sport utility vehicle… This line of thinking is not reserved for the contemplation of luxury items either. Cheap DVD players, new shoes, bubblegum and soda, music (old fashioned discs or the new virtual sort), and yes, even books. They are all symbols of ideas and we purchase them to fill a perceived need.
“But that only applies to people with disposable income.”
“Does it? How so?”
“If you are barely surviving, you are not buying ideas you’re buying life.”
“I disagree. Those with the least to spend place even more importance on the value of their purchases. They may not be able to afford as many ideas, but when they do buy they have far more invested than the casual purchaser.”
“I don’t think people look at it that way when they are buying a loaf of bread to feed their family.”
“Do you know anyone like that?”
Not surprisingly, the answer to that question is no.
Chances are you are reading this using your own personal computer. It is probably laptop, which in itself is the symbol of freedom in this age. And so, you might ask yourself the very same question: how many people do you know (and talk to regularly) that are barely making it?
As usual, I digress.
The point here is not to depress people about the state of our culture. I am certainly not in a position to rant and rail about the evils of consumerism. Frankly, I find that topic dreadfully boring. Rather, the idea (again with the ideas) is to point out that people buy books for the ideas but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that they will read them. In fact, I would bet that 90% of all book purchases end up on a shelf with barely a skip through their pages. There are simply too many books and too few minutes in the day.