Do People Still Read?

Do People Still Read?

By Nathaniel Nelson

Picture A Teenager

If I told you to picture a teenager, what would you see? Gretchen Weiners or Nancy Drew? Chad Michael Murray or Martin Starr?

In reports on teen reading habits, it often seems as if we envision teenagers as careless or superficial, more interested in their friends’ Snap stories than news stories or books. While I don’t mean to argue against this stereotype—which, in my experience, isn’t too far from reality—it is important to register how any new information we receive can be tainted by such preconceived notions.

Below I intend to demonstrate two things: that people, including teenagers, do still read, and that doubt surrounding this may stem from the fact that we often do it wrong (and then write wrong things, which other people read).

There are, as you might imagine, too many articles to count, all written by adults, claiming that teens don’t read anymore. Most of these pieces look like this one from NPR (a source notoriously hip with the kids, man) that, despite not citing any specific numbers or facts, points to the increased use of digital media as a factor in the decline of young readers. The image atop the article is a black-and-white picture of a young person reading, probably from the ’40s or ’50s, as if no young person has been photographed reading a book since then.

The lack of evidence in for the conclusions in such pieces is likely best explained by preconceived notions about young people and reading, leading to biased interpretations of the evidence that does exist. This 2014 Atlantic article titled “The Decline of the American Book Lover,” for example, sites Gallup and Pew polls indicating that, between 1978 and 2014, the number of Americans who claim to have not read a book in the past year rose by 15 percent. Though the article also notes that the majority of Americans still read books and the percentage of young people reading for pleasure has remained steady through the 2000s, if you are the type of person who believes Americans are getting dumber, a graph that seems to fall in line with your perspective will only reinforce it. If you believe social media is numbing teenagers’ minds, there are graphs for that, too: here are the Google search results for “people don’t read anymore”, and “people are reading more than ever”.

Of course, just about any official data, whether it be from this Pew study, or this other Pew study, or this University of Minnesota study, argues against this “teens don’t read” narrative. As the authors of the first Pew study explain based on the evidence they gathered: “Technology users are uniformly more likely than non-users to be readers for all of these reasons [i.e., for pleasure, to keep up with current events, for work or school, and for independent research]. That applies to internet users, cell phone owners, tablet owners, and e-book reader owners.”

So if I ask you to picture a teenager and you see a kid on their bed glued to their iPhone, know that there’s a good chance they’re using it to read. That the opposite narrative remains so pervasive points to the difficulty of discerning when to trust what you read, particularly online.

Good Citizens Make Good Readers

One of the itchiest, most sanctimonious narratives peddled by those who misread and then miswrite is the alltoocommon notion that “good readers make good citizens.” That quotation comes from a hundred-page-long study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts, an organization whose very existence depends on the continued success of artistic media, including prose and poetry. The authors of the study cite statistics indicating that “literary readers” tend to volunteer more, vote more, visit theaters, or create their own art with more frequency than individuals who don’t read. The implication, of course, is that the more you read, the doper you become.

But this is a classic case of correlation without causation: it isn’t that reading more makes you a better citizen, but that, due to socioeconomic influences, the types of citizens who read more tend to be the types of citizens who perform more dutifully in other areas of civic life. Yes, your calculus teacher can quote Moby Dick where your deadbeat uncle thinks Moby Dick is some sort of medical condition, but it isn’t because your teacher reads books like Moby Dick and your uncle doesn’t that they’ve ended up the people they are, it’s the people they are that lent to their reading or not reading these sorts of books. And if you think the correlation without causation fallacy is a mistake really smart people are aware enough to avoid, try this funny Yale University study (Yale!) on for size.

After reading dozens of articles on America’s literary citizenry (or lack thereof), with titles like “The Death of Reading,” I feel as if I’ve come across yet another moral quandary in this whole discourse: people who write about people not reading, frankly, have a stake in the game. Anyone who writes something for the general public holds a vested interest in your eyeballs, so any indication that their livelihood is at risk is cause for exaggeration and attention-seeking.

The Twist At The End

Ultimately, discovering truths about large groups of people is difficult, even for smart people. Google the right terms, and you’re likely to encounter warring back-to-back search results like “Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?” and “Young People Read More Books than Other Americans, Study Shows.” More often than not we see what we want to see and figure the rest out afterwards. This often leads to subpar emotional journalism (though occasionally someone bucks the trend with reasoned argument).

A perfect example of this comes from one of the Pew studies mentioned above, the accompanying report for which was titled “Slightly fewer Americans are reading print books, new survey finds.” Two days later, Electronic Lit magazine wrote a short summary of the study, stating: “A new survey from Pew Research Center found that Americans are reading less than before, with a seven percent drop since 2011.” Now here’s a sentence from the Pew study the E-Lit article was summarizing:

“Both the mean and median book-reading figures have fluctuated over the years, and there is no indication that the intensity of book reading over the years has permanently shifted in one direction or another, according to the Pew Research surveys and similar polls by Gallup.”

We’re often incentivized to feed narratives that may not be totally founded in reality, such as when the National Endowment for the Arts complains about not enough people being into an art. Then a place like CBS might pick up the story, because the dumbing of the American public is newsworthy enough to get people clicking on their website. E-Lit is guilty of the same sin as the NEA—they misread a statistic through tinted glasses, and ended up spreading false information. On some level, though, it’s hard to blame them—as a famous book once said, “Man selects only for his own good”.

That’s what I’ve done in writing this article. Yes, in a turn of events, I, your seemingly reliable guide, admit to having purposely selected certain information that supports my arguments. Here, for example, is a Gallup poll showing significant reduction in Americans reading novels (in any form) in the last half century, and an article on a study which demonstrated kids these days are reading noticeably less than their parents did when they were young.

To be fair, there will almost always be conflicting studies on any given topic—here, for instance, is an article which cites the exact same Gallup poll I linked in the previous paragraph, to make the exact opposite argument than I just did.

My point here is that, as difficult as it is to be right about something—in a poll, study, article, whatever—it may be even harder for us casual observers to parse out the good from the bad. Now, if this article has made you want to hide under your bedsheets and stop reading entirely, I understand the feeling. On the other hand, I believe that it is precisely because there is so much misinformation out there that we must be reading even more than we otherwise would. If this article has demonstrated one thing, it’s that finding any real answers requires an army of evidence and sources.

Keep reading—you’ll come across a lot of crap, but the alternative is much worse.



Nathaniel NelsonNathaniel Nelson (N8) is a filmmaker and writer.