By Lauren Herber, Editor-in-Chief
I recently wrote an article in response to the closure of my favorite Phoenix used bookstore, the Bookshop. Now that I’ve come to terms with the situation emotionally, I’m seeking answers to all my questions. Do people still read physical, weight-in-your-hands, faint-smell-of-must books? Where do they acquire their reading materials? Is capitalism out to get bookstores? Is technology the kiss of death for literature?
It would be too simplistic (albeit satisfying) to assign all of the blame to just one cause. In general, people still read, though not as much as they used to (this article will focus on American readers since that data was readily available). The Pew Research Center’s 2016 study on reading reported that over a quarter of Americans did not read a single book over the previous 12 months, up 6% from 2011 . Other data gathered during 2016 predicted that 42% of college students will never read another book after they graduate. Even though the majority of people still read (or at least say that they do), the number of non-book-readers has tripled since the late 1970s. And it’s literature—novels, poetry, short stories, or plays—that has been hit the hardest. In 2015, the percentage of adults who said they had read at least one work of literature in the past year hit its lowest point in three decades at 43%, down from 57% in 1982. And this is despite an overall increase of the number of American adults with a bachelor’s degree or more—a figure that has doubled since 1982.
So people are more educated, but reading less. What’s to blame? There are plenty of reasons, but you can mostly boil it down to two main factors: the influence of technology and the presence (or lack thereof) of books in the formative years of a child’s life. And, unfortunately, the two go hand-in-hand and are a tough duo to combat.
It makes sense: kids that are read to by their parents, and who have parents who read themselves, are more likely to continue reading as they get older. Young children who are held by their parents and read to will likely learn to associate books and reading with feelings of warmth, love, comfort, and security. Children who are frequent readers are much more likely to have parents who reinforce these feelings and encourage them to make reading a habit—by a factor of almost 4. And, thanks in part to technology, the percentage of children who are non-readers is on the rise, with activities such as playing games on apps, watching YouTube videos, and text messaging ousting other hobbies like reading and art.
Children who read infrequently when they are young grow into teenagers who read even less. Only 40% of 17-year-olds read on a weekly basis. Furthermore, a study conducted by Common Sense Media found that 45% of 17-year-olds only read for pleasure a couple of times a year, a figure that is up from 19% in 1984, when the iPhone wasn’t yet even a twinkle in Apple’s eye. Teens are increasingly ditching former hobbies to play video games and spend time on social media. And even when teens do choose to read, many of them do so on an e-reader, tablet, or smartphone, where distractions are just a click away. The result? Teenagers read for just four minutes a day on their days off, choosing instead other activities such as watching television (the average American watches three hours per day), gaming, or engaging with social media.
But let’s say you beat the odds and spend your childhood and teenage years reading regularly. Even as an adult, technology is not on your side. Technology makes us constantly accessible—meaning there are always emails to check, WhatsApp messages to reply to, emojis to send, statuses to like, tweets to favorite. Not to mention the other things competing for our attention: work, relationships, physical exercise, and, increasingly, Netflix. Plus, Americans have been increasingly using technological devices—such as smartphones, tablets, computers, and e-readers—to read. And just like teenagers, adults aren’t immune to the ever-present distractions lurking on these devices, tempting us with their promises of quick hits of entertainment.
It doesn’t help that we have the attention span of a goldfish—that is, a span of just 8 seconds. This means that, on average, Americans have difficulty spending more than 8 seconds on a task or project without becoming distracted. And if you’ve ever read a book before, you know that it certainly can’t be done in 8 seconds or less. This phenomenon is the result, in part, of social media. Social media is by its nature addictive because usage of social media increases levels of dopamine in the brain, making us crave more. Every time we get on social media and like somebody’s status or share a photo of our recent vacation, our brain gets a tiny hit of this “reward molecule.” The more you use social media, the more your brain learns to associate using social media with temporary dopamine highs. That itch you feel to check your phone at just the faintest hint of boredom is your brain craving dopamine, and social media is the quickest fix. Before long, it becomes nearly impossible to give difficult or time-consuming tasks the attention and concentration they need. Which is why trying to read a book on your smartphone or tablet is akin to setting yourself up for failure. All of this to say: reading requires patience and concentration, two skills that technology is, slowly but surely, eroding.
In sum, it’s tough to say what the exact cause of death was for my beloved bookstore. It seems to be a culmination of all of the various elements involved: kids are reading less and growing up to be adults who read less; technology has decreased our ability to concentrate; e-readers, tablets, and smartphones are growing in popularity as reading devices, making used print books an archaic token of the past; and the overall cost of living in central Phoenix is rising due to shiny new apartment complexes sprouting up like weeds, making fixed costs like rent insurmountable for small local businesses. And it’s not just small, local used bookstores that are suffering; even big chains like Barnes and Noble have seen the effects of technological reading devices and fewer readers, leading them to close a record number of stores in recent years, going from 798 stores in 2008 to 640 now, with plans to close more.
I know we’re all busy, with homework and clubs and job searching and families, but I want to encourage all T-birds to make reading a priority (and yes, I mean literature, too, not just the Wall Street Journal). Reading can’t necessarily give you a quick jolt of dopamine, but it can give you other things: a better vocabulary, stronger writing skills, the patience to stick with something for the long haul, and greater empathy for people and cultures that are different from your own. Through reading books, I’ve been able to travel all around the world, meet different people, explore new cultures, and understand perspectives that challenge my beliefs. Empathy is something that is sorely lacking not just in the United States, but throughout the whole world, as evidenced by the rise of populist candidates around the world that capitalize on fear and campaign on xenophobia. As T-birds, we stand to gain quite a bit by making the effort to understand those that are different from us. Empathy can provide us the opportunity to improve not only our personal lives, but our businesses as well. So pick up a book today and see where it takes you. If you can last for longer than 8 seconds, you’re already ahead of the curve.
For more information, you can read the Common Sense Media report in its entirety here.