So, since it can be generally assumed that as a human being, you’re at least somewhat of a social creature, and since as social creatures we tend to use these weird little symbols called words in order to transmit this stuff called information, or sometimes we use them to make pretty stuff called art, and since you’re reading this which is composed of picture-symbol words, I’m going to make the grand assumption that you’re pretty much in favor of words, and that you might even like reading them. Rather bold of me, but if you’ll forgive my presumption, I’ll continue.
The words you’re reading now are contained within an intangible object known as a blog, or “blag” if you want to be silly (see, I’m doing that nifty social thing called “making a reference” which is really only possible through use of symbols, getting one to recall another thing from another place or time without that thing being present, yay words), composed of a lot little ones and zeros (symbols again, on/off, yes/no), which have an electrical existence on a very real and tangible item like a hard drive, a server that exists somewhere not here, that you or I will probably never see or lay hands on. Probably. Unless you’re directly involved in maintaining such items.
Now my point is, if you’ve gotten this far, if you’ve engaged with these symbols reproduced on a screen for your pleasure and enjoyment, you’re taking part in an act called reading. You may have gotten here through a link from Twitter (which gives you a list of short posts which you more than likely read a few of and clicked over here) or you may have read a status update on Facebook that I posted (which I can assume you read, at least slightly intrigued, or if not, you just clicked hoping to be entertained by the act of reading the post here presented). But according to some sources, reading is on the decline. This could be a problem for a writer like myself.
Now, for quite some time, I’ve been annoyed at all this doom and gloom around reading and literature. People say folk are just not reading anymore, period. In 2007, Caleb Crain, writing for The New Yorker, digested the National Endowment for the Arts’ statics on reading, and found some grim numbers. Questions being asked differently to encompass more, to make it appear that reading has gone up? Eek. But you’ll note first thing, he’s not giving the numbers from the same pollsters every year. He jumps from Gallup to NEA to the General Social Survey. Hmmm. He does state that the wording of the question has changed over time, yes; but then, people are no longer reading bound print books as much as they used to. They are consuming e-books. There is literature and poetry on Twitter. Short stories are generally not considered “books” by themselves, but are certainly literary. The way you ask the question is important. Any anthropologist or sociologist can tell you that. Asking about book consumption, especially in this day and age, is a tricksey prospect, and perhaps wrong-headed if one wants to get a clear picture of how people are actually reading.
In The New Yorker‘s favor, we have seen the bankruptcy and close of one of the U.S.’s iconic booksellers, Borders. Every day I go to work and pass the empty building full of shelves that once housed hundreds of thousands of copies of my favorite type of print media. It is a tombstone for ink and paper, and certainly a blow to an industry now given over to the grave.
Earlier this month, The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal posted Gallup’s numbers. The question is asked straightforwardly: “Do you happen to be reading any books or novels at present?” There does not seem to be much ambiguity to that question, because the word “novel” can be applied to any mode of distribution, e-book or print. Bearing mind also, the graph reads “backwards” (at least to the Romantic or Anglophone eye), the most recent dates on the left hand side of the chart. Looking only at the Gallup numbers, there is a clear increase.
But even this question would fail to capture my reading habits. I’ve been making slow progress with a print copy of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil for some months, but I’ve been popping poems like candy, blowing through graphic novels, and breakfasting on short stories from Daily Science Fiction. None of these forms count when you ask the question “Do you happen to be reading any books or novels at present?” except perhaps graphic novels, but my point is here, I don’t count them. To me, they are a separate literary form, and though they are of value, merit, etc, my definition of “novel” (work of fiction, 50,000 words in length or more) does not encompass “graphic novel” (work of literature relying equally on word and image to tell a story). Others’ definitions could. But mine doesn’t. And that type of thing distinctly matters when conducting these polls.
Given these thoughts, I don’t think we have to worry about people not reading. To draw another cultural analogy, though folk regard art as dying thing, it isn’t. It was never open to the masses, and its accessibility today is an anomaly, despite the fact that critics regard this accessibility as a pollution, a dilution. Ursula K. Le Guin posits much the same for books in her 2008 essay over at Harper’s. Reading is a social act, a cultural glue. Twitter and Facebook affirm this, as does Harry Potter, in Le Guin’s example.
The way people engage the written word will always change. Our notions of literature are in constant flux. Why should we value long form over short form, why should we distinguish as more valuable fiction over non? There is power in each and all. The doomsayers are lamenting the loss of a format which was in its infancy (at least by the grand arc of human history). They rue to death of an industry, publishing, that never understood how we construct our identities from the symbols we push around, on paper or canvas or with pixels. What matters is that we engage these cultural artifacts together, note inclusion, dissect ideas, and make meaning; as users of symbolic reasoning, reading is long going to be part of that process.