The decline of reading in the UK and the US

I used to hear it all the time as a public library employee: “People just don’t read as many books these days.”

It’s almost a common-knowledge truism – certainly something that anyone with a love of literature is certain to have heard if not repeated. But a recent study by the University of Manchester suggests that British people actually read more than they did in 1975. [Hat-tip to Ariel]

The research seems to be pretty wide reaching (10-15,000 people surveyed in each country), but as with all statistics we can’t be sure exactly how this all pans out, and what factors are at work.

For example, the statement “in 2000, Brits read on average for five more minutes each day than they did in 1975” comes with a freight of ambiguity; it’s an average. It may be the case that demographics who were heavy readers in 1975 now have more time on their hands (and cheaper access to books), and have increased their reading as a result. But what of the demographics that traditionally read less in 1975? Are they reading more, or less, or the same amount? Has the flux in their reading time been absorbed by the increase of the time- and money-affluent?

And what about age spreads? The Print is Dead blog reports on a survey which suggests that, in the US, kids are actually reading far less than they used to – despite the alleged success of [multi-part YA book franchise I’m already sick of hearing about] as a ‘honey trap’ for the previously book-shy.

The same may well be the case here in the UK; I’m not even sure how one could go about getting figures that will actuially tell the whole story. The explosion of the ‘YA’ fiction bracket (a marketing term that I personally find cynical and degrading to authors and readers alike) suggests that there is plenty of reading going on at the younger end of the age scale. But sales figures aren’t the whole story – they don’t tell us who is buying these books, or who is reading them.

The fact that, overall, more books seem to be sold each year would suggest that reading as a pastime is far from dead. But who are those readers? Can we even find out? And what could we do with that knowledge – as a genre, as authors, as reviewers and critics and bloggers, as an industry – if we found it?

One thought on “The decline of reading in the UK and the US”

  1. here’s where I out myself as an agitator and say: “so?”

    In all seriousness, though – reading a book has no magical power. Its an information disbursement medium, with strengths and weaknesses. Just like TV, the internet, radio, and so-on.

    If I want to learn to program, I’ll snag a book. If I want to learn to garden, or cook, I’ll turn on the telly.

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