Alex Steer

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The evolution of reading

1022 words | ~5 min

The University of California at San Diego's 2009 How Much Information? report estimates Americans' total leisure-time consumption of information (measured in hours, words and bytes - see the report's methodology), based on existing household panel, census and survey data. One of the headlines making the news (see here, for example) is the estimate that since 1960 reading as a way of receiving information has grown in proportion and absolute volume. As the report puts it:

Conventional print media has fallen from 26 percent of [words received] in 1960 to 9 percent in 2008. However, this has been more than counterbalanced by the rise of the Internet and local computer programs, which now provide 27 percent of [words received]. Conventional print provides an additional 9 percent. In other words, reading as a percentage of our information consumption has increased in the last 50 years, if we use words themselves as the unit of measurement.

While this measure is not perfect, it reflects what is fairly obvious: that since personal computing is dominated by print media (especially the internet), and we spend more time using computers, we are reading more. The decline in reading traditional print media has not matched the growth in reading screens.

On the face of it, this suggests that the adage that interactive media are killing reading is no longer true. But the headline numbers of the kind in this study are, if anything, the least interesting and the least revealing part of the story. The 'death of reading' story is a reflection of some more deep-running concerns which we are choosing to play out through our relationship with words.

There is a partly-hidden agenda to the 'death of reading' story, just as when we say that television is killing the art of conversation (to which I say a resounding 'meh') or when the Buggles sang that video killed the radio star. This is the domain of sensitive sociolinguistic analysis, not of simple counting, and this is where the limitations of the UCSD study become apparent. When you hear people talk about the death of reading they are not talking about a decline in the number of printed words being taken in. Nor are they necessarily expressing concern at declining literacy, though the argument is sometimes expressed rather weakly in this way. It is demonstrably not true. In the UK, for example, literacy is at 99% (though around 16% of adults have literacy difficulties). An NFER longitudinal analysis completed in 1996 found that overall literacy levels had changed little since 1948. Attainment rates in Key Stage 2 English SATS has risen sharply since 1995, despite a slight and over-reported decline last year.

When people talk about a decline of reading, I suggest they are talking about a decline in a particular social model of reading. This is the model of solitary contemplation of printed matter for leisure, entertainment or instruction: the image of the man or woman in a room of one's own, from Ambrose of Milan (the first recorded silent reader) to the entire cast of Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy. There is a sense that we give less time to a kind of quiet contemplative idea of reading that was formulated by the early Christian fathers, celebrated for its individualism as a facet of Romanticism and then feared in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by those who worried about the disordering effect of working-class autodidacticism. We still love the idea of the idle reader, away from the world. Inevitably, sweeping changes will always be a threat to that quiet idea (as in the late eighteenth century, so now), and the technological changes that are affecting how we read are also, perhaps, making it harder to preserve the notion of reading as a discrete and disengaged activity. We are constantly confronted with the necessity of reading for information rather than for pleasure. Reading from a screen, even in our leisure time, feels less like play and more like work. Even if we are reading more, we feel like we are reading less.

Yet reading for pleasure, if printed book sales alone are any judge, is not noticeably in decline either. I think we are just increasingly aware of the relegation of printed matter to the margins of our reading experiences. I speculate that the new technology of screens are print media is unsettling to the stable social model of reading, and there remains something comfortable about printed books as physical objects - something whose sensory impression makes us feel that we are reading when we are reading from a page. This is, in other words, a period of technological disruption, when a new medium is thoroughly embedded in our lives but has not yet settled into a comfortable spot.

If there is anything correct in this analysis, what are the implications for people who need to push print at readers? Better and more focused, more thoughtful research is needed, but a starting point might be to suggest that screen could be the medium for making people not feel like they are reading, and print the medium for making people feel like they are. This insight has already (possibly) been identified by marketers trying to choose between direct mail and email, but a better understanding of our responses towards reading experiences might help those decisions be made in ways that are more effective for communicators and more valuable to readers.

# Alex Steer (29/12/2009)