I encounter this meme a lot on social media: “Surprising Book Facts!” It begins with the disturbing statistic that 33 percent of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives and ends with saying reading one hour a day in your chosen field will make you an international expert in seven years.
Needless to say, there are some major difficulties with this graphic. You can even say the proliferation of this meme demonstrates why we should turn away from silly shares on Facebook and instead read a real book once in a while.
Misleading statistics aside, reading has indeed declined in the last few decades. The Pew Foundation reports that as of March 2015, 73 percent of Americans read a book at least partly in the previous 12 months, a figure lower than the 79 percent reported in 2011 but statistically in line with more recent years. This reading can be in any format—print, electronic, or audio.
Comparing to past decades, that number has dropped. Gallup polls from 1978 reported 88 percent of Americans had read a book at least partly in the past year. The numbers were 81 percent from a 1990 poll, and 85 percent from a 2001 poll.
So What If People Don’t Read Books?
In reading these statistics, I was skeptical of whether the data were really a cause for concern. Differences in survey methodology aside, is it really a problem if Americans, indeed, are reading fewer books? Is there some inherent value in cracking open a book as opposed to reading a very in-depth, insightful article? After all, one can be well-informed and not read a single book: if, for example, one reads The Economist cover-to-cover every week.
Also, so what if the same folks reading only Danielle Steele in 1978 are now giving up on books and instead watching “Dancing with the Stars”? (Disclaimer: I very much enjoy Steele and “Dancing with the Stars.” No disrespect intended). Is it really a problem that the medium changed from book to TV given the low intellectual value of Steele’s work?
Several “successful people” eschew books, including President Trump ( “I read passages, I read areas, chapters”), Kanye West ( “I am a proud non-reader of books”) and The Blaze personality Tomi Lahren (“I don’t like to read long books. I like to read news”).
Even if that list isn’t very convincing, people whom I personally am assured are much smarter than myself, such as my husband (who reads case law for a living and in-depth statistical analysis for fun) probably would answer “No” if the Pew Foundation came around asking if he had read a book in the past year.
So sure, I’m not going to be wringing my hands over Americans’ lack of reading anytime soon, aside from general lament toward the cult of anti-intellectualism currently present in some circles. But as an avid reader myself—a proud purveyor of biographies, classic literature, and utter trash alike (I really, really, love “Confessions of a Shopaholic” and mass-market Star Trek books)—I am an advocate of cracking open a book, firing up your e-reader, or investing in an Audible.com account. Here’s why.
You Will Learn and Comprehend More
What is the difference between reading an informative article and an informative book? Let’s assume for the moment that most of your article reading is done online, in a format that includes links (like reading TheFederalist.com daily). On the flip side, let’s assume even if you are reading on your Kindle, the medium at least attempts to simulate a printed book, with page flipping and no extra distractions.
One difference you’ll see is in how your brain decodes the text. As Rachel Grate points out, our brains actually are not designed for reading long spans of text, and it is a use-it-or-lose-it skill. As we read, our brains construct a “mental map” based on the text, and with a traditional book, the brain will map the text in a linear fashion. With online reading, however, especially with attendant distractions such as links, ads, and the power to scroll down fast, most people begin skimming rather than truly absorbing a text.
A 2006 study showed reading on screens (especially Internet reading) led to people scanning the text in an F pattern—that is, reading the top line then skimming along the left side of the page. As individuals become accustomed to reading in this nonlinear fashion, the brain becomes less and less accustomed to comprehending and focusing on denser text.
In addition, when one is reading on the Internet, it is really easy and tempting to switch to another tab or click on a Facebook notification. Farhad Manjoo wrote an article entitled, “You Won’t Finish This Article,” highlighting data that shows the amount of people who clicked on an average Slate article and when they clicked off the page. For example, “on a typical Slate page, only 25 percent of readers make it past the 1,600th pixel of the page,” which is well before the end. Also, the number of readers who shared articles was higher than the number who read an article all the way through.
In addition, reading a well-researched nonfiction book means you are more likely to get in-depth and vetted knowledge you cannot get in an article. An author for vox.com might be relying on a few days of Google research and an interview or two (and as a writer who is an expert neither on reading rates nor technology, I am not exempt from this criticism), but a book potentially and ideally incorporates months or years of research by a relative expert in the field.
Even if an article in The Federalist or Washington Post is an abridged version of an argument by an expert, the complexity of a well-researched book takes you on a long walk with the author, who is making a well-reasoned argument over hundreds of pages. The time and effort taken to read the book is analogous to the time and effort to write it, which means you engage with the topic more fully, and themes and theses will begin repeating throughout.
This is why I, for example, will perhaps quickly read an article that features interesting background on Albert Einstein then quickly forget most of the points, whereas I am very slowly making my way through Walter Isaacson’s biography of the man. It hard for me not to skim, but I choose to make the effort to reread passages, since there is no end in sight to the book and therefore no resultant reward to clicking off the page.
You Will Increase Your Emotional Intelligence
That is not to say that nonfiction has the monopoly on the benefits of reading. Two separate studies by a pair of psychologists at The New School have suggested that reading literary fiction, in particular, can improve empathy.
Although the methodologies of these studies have drawn criticism, the idea is that literary fiction, which usually has characters with complicated interior lives and studies how they react to everyday situations, makes the reader “fill in the blanks” more on the motivations and reasoning behind the characters’ actions. That type of practice can lead to more awareness of others’ complicated emotions in real life. This is in contrast to the usually more stereotypical caricatures and thrilling, roller-coaster events that often occur in genre fiction.
The never-ending “genre fiction” versus “literary fiction” battle aside, any book that tells an overarching “story”—whether that’s “A Handmaid’s Tale,” the Harry Potter series, or the Bible—creates that same immersion in another world as reading an in-depth nonfiction tome.
Never have I been so aware of the benefits of a slow-simmering story until we started reading the first Harry Potter book to our two young children. It is tempting to put on the movie and let them know how it all turns out, but the payoff is in the setup and the picture painted by the author.
In “Life Together,” World War II-era theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer lamented the common practice of reading daily devotional passages from the Bible without context and advocated a consecutive reading of biblical books, thereby allowing the reader to “become a part of what once took place for our salvation” and “forgetting and losing ourselves, we, too, [passing] through the Red Sea, through the desert, across the Jordan into the promised land.”
Immersive, slow, deep reading not only retrains your brain to read again, but assists in “empathy, transportation and immersion, and narrative coherence.” Many studies and articles on this subject focus on the benefits of print books versus e-readers, as opposed to Internet scrolling versus novel reading, but the common theme of limiting distractions remains the same.
You Will Get Back In the Habit
So what can a busy person do? Who has time to read? One answer is if busy wartime generals such as Jim Mattis, Stanley McChrystal, and William McCraven had time to read (and all three regularly published reading lists for their officers, enlisted, and civilians to devour), then you can.
Mattis took on individuals who complained they did not have time to read: “The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience ….i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.”
The benefits of slow, immersive reading of a print book aside, I find using my Kindle or Scribd app on my phone aids in my reading time. Time I used to spend browsing Facebook and Reddit and reading news often gets diverted instead to reading a few pages of a complex book, or in the case of exciting genre fiction, hours of devouring a story instead of mindlessly scrolling social media. That method may be more distraction-prone, but it does condition me toward longer reads.
Audiobooks, too, have many of the same benefits of visual reading and fall under the Pew Foundation’s definition of reading. In fact, my “haven’t read a book in the past year” husband listens to in-depth history podcasts. Dan Carlin’s hours-and-hours-long deep dives into the “Wrath of the Khans” and Mike Duncan’s “History of Rome” absolutely count as an audiobook given the depth and breadth of the discussion.
We live in an attention-deficient, hectic, technology-riddled society, but we can fight the tide of clickbait and soundbites by using our technological tools to aid in real learning and in training our minds. As a result, hopefully we will stop relying on misleading Facebook memes to inform our opinions.