Chapter one, we didn't really get along ...

››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

Eric has a new Nation column here called "It Ain't Necessarily So," about the unnecessary tabloidization and conservative-ization of the news business.

Hello. It's Siva Vaidhyanathan again. I will do Altercation on Friday as well. Then Eric A. will be back in the country, rested and ready to go.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about books. I read a lot of them. I buy far more than I actually read. People send me piles of them for free. And on occasion I write one.

My life pretty much depends on a healthy book industry and book culture. Yesterday we received this comment at the Altercation Batcave:

Name: Alex Swingle
Hometown: NYC

Hey Eric,

Just saw this article yesterday on how a survey conducted reveals one in four adults haven't read a book in the past year. Now when I sent this to some of my friends, I got a few answers that were to the effect "I don't have the time, I work late..... I have a wife and kids to take care of."

Now while I understand as we get older and have more responsibilities, of course we have less time to read. But I was curious to hear your thoughts as you are A) a professional writer/author and B) are married and have children, and judging from your blogposts over the years, you seem to have the time to read, as I am sure many other professionals, academics and the like who have families do.

It doesn't seem to make sense, in this day and age, with technology supposedly making life more efficient, wouldn't it make sense that we would have more time to pursue such activities? Or even if you do have a full plate, why is it such a big deal to take a few minutes of your time a day to pick up a book (The Left Behind series and anything by Ann Coulter don't count).

Maybe I am pessimistic, but is this a sign we are getting more intellectually lazy as a people? It's times like this when that slight isolationist streak comes out in me -- who the heck are we to tell other countries how to live when roughly 25% of thinks that picking up a book is an enormous burden in their lives??

============

Here are some of the core stats from that AP article:

The typical person claimed to have read four books in the last year -- half read more and half read fewer. Excluding those who hadn't read any, the usual number read was seven.

[...]

When the Gallup Poll asked in 2005 how many books people had at least started a similar but not directly comparable question the typical answer was five. That was down from 10 in 1999, but close to the 1990 response of six.

Notice the massive increase in readership once George H.W. Bush left office and the severe drop-off in the average number of books Americans report to have read since George W. Bush came into office. Coincidence?

Actually, yes. That and most other conclusions we might draw from this survey are irrelevant and overblown. Why would the number rise from six in 1990 to 10 in 1999 and then drop again to five in 2005? I makes no sense, really, unless one concludes that years in which the New York Yankees win the World Series Americans are more bookish. That makes about as much sense as anything. The uncharitable Yankee-hater might conclude that years in which the Yankees are in the World Series drive Americans to read out of boredom and frustration. But I prefer the former hypothesis.

Basically, any survey that finds that much variability in such a short period of time must be poorly designed and executed. The numbers must be bogus or distilled in such a way as to generate the greatest sense of alarm.

This is the latest in a number of reports and surveys that satisfy conventional wisdom all too neatly: Americans are shallower, dumber, number, and distracted more than ever. Actually, there is nothing in this or any of the other recent studies that supports this conclusion.

Perhaps the best-known such survey was done in 2004 by the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was called "Reading at Risk" and concluded that found only 57 percent of American adults had read a book of literary fiction in 2002, a four-percentage-point drop in a decade. Please note that the AP story that was widely printed and circulated (and in the case of this Altercation entry, linked to) misreports the conclusion of that study. It did not say 57 percent of Americans had not read a book. It said 57 percent of Americans had not read a work of literary fiction. There is a big difference. Many of those people, I am sure, read The Anarchist in the Library and no other book that year. After all, why would you? Oh, neither of these surveys asked non-English language readers what they read. There are many other problems with the surveys. But there are bigger problems with how we share and discuss the findings.

Look, we all like to pretend that we were once smarter and wiser as a culture back in the [insert decade of your youth here]. That's crap. Until well into the late 20th century, the United States was largely uneducated and illiterate. Even today, fewer than a quarter of all Americans earn a bachelor's degree. The lower your education and income, the more hours you have to work. Americans in general have to work more hours to keep their lives afloat. We have many demands on our non-working hours (what used to be called "leisure").

Books mattered more to our national sense of ourselves and our daily lives (and thus were a larger part of our economy) in the mid-20th century because elites had a much larger role in defining what was important. And elites read a lot of books (or at least tell pollsters that they do). More important, there was little else. Before television we had four or five basic media through which we could get our stories and entertainment. So naturally books mattered more. So did radio drama and community theatre. Nobody is commissioning studies lamenting the drop-off in community theatre attendance over the past two decades.

So, no, we are not getting intellectually lazy. Some of us are lucky enough to have jobs that pay us to read. But in general, millions more Americans read and buy books than did 30 years ago. Why? Because there are millions more Americans than there were 30 years ago.

The book industry is having all sorts of trouble. But we, the readers, are not to blame. Wall Street, Barnes & Noble, and the absurdities of the basic structures of the industry (which allow unlimited returns from vendors, taxes on inventory, and no way to assess market demand until it's far too late and either too many or too few books sit on the shelves) shoulder much of the blame.

I could go on at length. Maybe I already have. To summarize: we are not a culture in decline. The sky is not falling on either education or literacy. The book industry is in trouble, but not because we don't want books. And the country is a better place when the Yankees win the World Series (which, fortunately, happens often enough to make this the greatest damn nation on Earth).

OK. Enough about books. How about some good ol' fashioned World Wide Web reading? Our own Eric Rauchway has a new column on why the rest of the world might like old-timey conservatism better than neoliberalism or neoconservatism.

I will be back tomorrow with a takedown of the U.S. News & World Report college rankings.

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