Further into the twilight

In June, in posts at the New Yorker website and here on this blog, I reported new statistics about the amount of time that the average American spends reading, as a way of updating my 2007 New Yorker article “Twilight of the Books,” which discussed America’s shift from a literate culture to one of secondary orality. A couple of days ago, to prepare for a radio interview on the topic, I decided to poke around online to see if I could update other statistics in my 2007 piece as well. Here are a few that were easy for me to find . . .

In 2007, I wrote that

According to the Department of Labor, American households spent an average of a hundred and sixty-three dollars on reading in 1995 and a hundred and twenty-six dollars in 2005.

That spending dipped to one hundred two dollars in 2013, though it recovered somewhat in 2016, when it reached one hundred eighteen dollars. These amounts are not adjusted for inflation; if they were, the decline would look even steeper. Here’s a graph from the Bureau of Labor Statistics of household spending on reading between 1984 and 2017, also not adjusted for inflation:

US household spending on reading between 1984 and 2017

One of the pegs for my 2007 article was the release that year of a somewhat dire report from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), titled To Read or Not to Read. The NEA has published several follow-up reports since then, including the more optimistic Reading on the Rise in 2008 and the more mundanely-titled U.S. Trends in Arts Attendance and Literary Reading: 2002-2017 in September 2018. The NEA defines “creative literature” as novels, short stories, plays, and poems, and it counts in that category electronic texts as well as those printed in ink on paper. In 2007, I reported that

In 1982, 56.9 per cent of Americans had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. The proportion fell to fifty-four percent in 1992, and to 46.7 per cent in 2002.

The NEA subsequently reported that in 2008, the share of Americans saying they had read a work of creative literature in the preceding twelve months recovered slightly, to 50 percent, but the share fell again in 2012 to 47 percent, and then in 2015 to 43 percent. In 2017, the number was hovering at 44 percent.

What about non-fiction books, such as history, political punditry, and memoir? Over the past quarter century, the NEA has also regularly asked Americans whether they’ve read any book at all in the preceding year that wasn’t required for work or school, and it turns out that the decline here, too, has continued to be steady.

Pleasure reading in America, 1992-2017

It’s conceivable that the dip in household spending could be explained away by the price-cutting enforced by Amazon and by the internet’s decimation of the subscriber base of newspapers and magazines, but the recent declines in self-reported rates of reading look dismayingly consistent with the recent declines in average time spent reading. I’m afraid this is (still) a thing.

Re-reading reading: bonus round

Actually, bonus round and afterthought.

First, the afterthought. In a recent post for The New Yorker taking a second look at data about American reading habits, I wrote that “there’s a little bit of good news: the average American reader spent 1.39 hours reading in 2003, rising to 1.48 hours in 2016.” But I’m not so sure now that that’s good news. I imagined a bulwark of readers who were redoubling their devotion to literature in a time of crisis, but another explanation of the surge occurs to me. Maybe we’ve lost the fair-weather, lightweight readers, and all that’s left is a core who have always spent serious time on reading.

Now the bonus round. One of the graphs of reading habits that I made got left on the cutting-room floor, because it seemed to require more explanation than it offered enlightenment. But here on my personal blog, I’m free to bore you a little if I want to. So here we go . . .

In my post, I parsed the reading habits of Americans by age. But because the American Time Use Survey, the source for my data, has now lasted more than a decade, it’s also possible to follow the progress of age cohorts—that is, to compare the reading habits of people who were 25 to 34 years old between 2003 and 2006 with those of people who were 35 to 44 years old between 2013 and 2016, and so on. I did so with five cohorts, using averages of the data from 2003 to 2006 and from 2013 to 2016, with the following dispiriting results:

The youngest Americans in this graph, born in the 1980s, managed to increase their reading time a little over the course of the decade, but not by very much; it’s probably another case of what I refer to in my post as a dead-cat bounce. Every other age cohort read less at the end of the decade, except for the oldest, representing people born in the 1940s. That result may be untrustworthy, however, because my averages compare the 55-64-year-olds of 2003 to 2006 with those who were over 65 between 2013 and 2016, so there are late-septuagenarians, octogenarians, and nonagenarians in the mix, avidly reading and skewing the turquoise line higher than it deservedly should go.

Keep in mind that this graph is a little kludgier than the ones presented in and linked to in the original post (that’s why it got left on the cutting-room floor; sharp eyes will have noticed, for example, that the age cohorts that I’m comparing here overlap in birth years at the edges), but I think the overall pattern is suggestive enough for a blog on teh internet’s peripheries.

A small Railroad Library

National Railroad Bookshelf, José Luis Martínez library, Biblioteca Vasconcelos

In Mexico City’s Juarez neighborhood today, we stumbled across the personal library of the scholar and essayist José Luis Martínez, which is preserved, intact, in a suite of blond-wood rooms in the Biblioteca Vasconcelos. It’s a working writer’s library, full of creased paperbacks and reference books as well as signed first editions (from Juan Rulfo, among others). The item pictured above, which hangs on a wall in one of the back rooms, I found especially moving. Here’s a translation of the wall text:

During his work for the National Railroads between 1952 and 1958, José Luis Martínez thought of the possibility of establishing a small Railroad Library, and thought that in the caboose of every train there should be a bookshelf like this one with a small selection of books. We have arranged one of these bookshelves as an hommage to the man who labored so that all Mexicans could have a book in their hands.

A talk in Portland

Reed College and the University of Portland have invited me to give a talk at the end of March in Portland, Oregon. I’ll be giving the same lecture at both places. The title is going to be “The Disenchantment of Literature in the Age of the Hit Counter,” and here are the details:

Both are free and open to the public. Please come!