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ande
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#37 What we are reading -- and does it sound right to you?

Book Explorers:

I am always skeptical about studies that state how many Americans are reading, what kind of Americans are reading and what exactly they are reading. I have written about this more than once in Book Explorers.

Now we have a new report from the National Endowment for the Arts on the state of reading. It seems like only yesterday that it was wringing its institutional hands over the slow death of literary culture. The NEA now reports that the 25-year decline in reading of literature has been reversed!

Below, I have pasted in the NEA announcement. But, first, if you’re looking for an unbiased summary-analysis I think the one in yesterday’s New York Times was as good as any. It says, in part:

Four years ago the endowment released the report “Reading at Risk,” which showed that fewer than half of Americans over 18 read novels, short stories, plays or poetry. That survey, based on data gathered in 2002, provoked a debate among academics, publishers and others about why reading was declining. Some argued that it wasn’t, criticizing the study for too narrowly defining reading by focusing on the literary side, and for not explicitly including reading that occurred online.

In each survey since 1982 the data did not differentiate between those who read several books a month and those who read only one poem. Nor did the surveys distinguish between those who read the complete works of Proust or Dickens and those who read one Nora Roberts novel or a single piece of fan fiction on the Internet.

Mr. Gioia [NEA head Dan Gioia] said that Internet reading was included in the 2008 data, although the phrasing of the central question had not changed since 1982. But he said he did not think that more reading online was the primary reason for the increase in literary reading rates overall.

Instead he attributed the increase in literary reading to community-based programs like the “Big Read,” Oprah Winfrey’s book club, the huge popularity of book series like “Harry Potter” and Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight,” as well as the individual efforts of teachers, librarians, parents and civic leaders to create “a buzz around literature that’s getting people to read more in whatever medium.”

This apparent reversal came a little more than a year after the endowment released an overwhelmingly pessimistic report in 2007 that linked a decline in reading-test scores to a fall in reading for fun among adolescents. That report also collected data showing that the proportion of adults who read regularly for pleasure had declined. At the time Mr. Gioia called the data “simple, consistent and alarming.”

Elizabeth Birr Moje, an education professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in literacy, language and culture, said it was impossible to do more than speculate why literary reading rates had increased in the most recent survey. The rise could just as easily be attributed to changes in health care or a need for escape in difficult economic times, she said.

What’s more, Ms. Moje added, it was an isolated piece of information. “It’s just a blip,” she said. “If you look at trend data, you will always see increases and decreases in people’s literate practices.”

I think that professor is onto something. I’m in the “it’s a blip” school of thinking, too. Also, booksellers and librarians I talk to agree with Ms. Moje that hard times spur escapism. And what better place to escape into than a book?

In any case, this is just another part on the on-going discussion we have in Book Explorers are about the state of reading, publishing, digital transitions etc.

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Do you read more fiction than non-fiction?

Do you read more non-fiction than fiction?

Is it right to assume that since you are a Book Explorer that you like to read – a lot?

If not, what attracts you this club?

Ande

The NEA announcement

Washington, D.C. -- For the first time in more than 25 years, American adults are reading more literature, according to a new study by the National Endowment for the Arts. Reading on the Rise documents a definitive increase in rates and numbers of American adults who read literature, with the biggest increases among young adults, ages 18-24. This new growth reverses two decades of downward trends cited previously in NEA reports such as Reading at Risk and To Read or Not To Read.

"At a time of immense cultural pessimism, the NEA is pleased to announce some important good news. Literary reading has risen in the U.S. for the first time in a quarter century," said NEA Chairman Dana Gioia. "This dramatic turnaround shows that the many programs now focused on reading, including our own Big Read, are working. Cultural decline is not inevitable."

Among the key findings:

Literary reading increases

  • For the first time in the history of the survey - conducted five times since 1982 - the overall rate at which adults read literature (novels and short stories, plays, or poems) rose by seven percent.
  • The absolute number of literary readers has grown significantly. There were 16.6 million more adult readers of literature in 2008. The growth in new readers reflects higher adult reading rates combined with overall population growth.
  • The 2008 increases followed significant declines in reading rates for the two most recent ten-year survey periods (1982-1992 and 1992-2002).

Demographics of literature readers

  • Young adults show the most rapid increases in literary reading. Since 2002, 18-24 year olds have seen the biggest increase (nine percent) in literary reading, and the most rapid rate of increase (21 percent). This jump reversed a 20 percent rate of decline in the 2002 survey, the steepest rate of decline since the NEA survey began.
  • Since 2002, reading has increased at the sharpest rate (+20 percent) among Hispanic Americans, Reading rates have increased among African Americans by 15 percent, and among Whites at an eight percent rate of increase.
  • For the first time in the survey's history, literary reading has increased among both men and women. Literary reading rates have grown or held steady for adults of all education levels.

Trends in media and literary preferences

  • Fiction (novels and short stories) accounts for the new growth in adult literary readers.
  • Reading poetry and drama continues to decline, especially poetry-reading among women.
  • Online readers also report reading books. Eighty-four percent of adults who read literature (fiction, poetry, or drama) on or downloaded from the Internet also read books, whether print or online.
  • Nearly 15 percent of all U.S. adults read literature online in 2008.

A tale of two Americas

  • The U.S. population now breaks into two almost equally sized groups – readers and non-readers.
  • A slight majority of American adults now read literature (113 million) or books (119 million) in any format.
  • Reading is an important indicator of positive individual and social behavior patterns. Previous NEA research has shown that literary readers volunteer, attend arts and sports events, do outdoor activities, and exercise at higher rates than non-readers.

The NEA research brochure Reading on the Rise is based on early results from the 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA). SPPA is a periodic survey that has been conducted five times since 1982 using data obtained in partnership with the United States Census Bureau. Detailed results from the 2008 survey will be available in 2009. The 2008 SPPA survey has a sample size of more than 18,000 adults. The 2008 survey's literary reading questions - which form the focus of Reading on the Rise - were the same as in previous years: "During the last 12 months, did you read any a) novels or short stories; b) poetry; or c) plays?" Since 1992, the survey also has asked about book-reading. In 2008, the survey introduced new questions about reading preferences and reading on the Internet.

NEA literature initiatives

The issue of declining reading rates has been addressed by a number of public and private initiatives. The Arts Endowment has embraced the challenge with a range of programs to promote reading among young audiences. In 2003, the NEA launched Shakespeare in American Communities, the largest tour of Shakespeare in American history, reaching more than 21 million students through performances and educational resources. The Big Read, a partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, encourages communities to read, discuss, and celebrate selections from American and world literature. Poetry Out Loud: National Poetry Recitation Contest has introduced thousands of high school students nationwide to classic and contemporary poetry through this dynamic recitation competition.

 

 

 

Melissa_W
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Re: #37 What we are reading -- and does it sound right to you?

As an epidemiologist - trained to design and conduct research studies - I always wonder how these groups choose their subjects.  What was the response rate for the survey?  Are there any socioeconomic barriers?  Language barriers?  And so on.

 

As a bookseller, what I see on the ground is often a little different than what is reported in a study.  Yeah, 2007 sold a lot of Harry Potter books and 2008 sold a lot of Edgar Sawtelle and Twilight; but 2007 also sold a lot of Marley and Me and The Secret and 2008 sold a lot of Last Lecture, Dewey, and Outliers.  I sell a lot of books both fiction and non-fiction.  I really didn't see much change (they also said the holiday retail environment was bad this year but since I was picking up a messy store and selling lots of books, I didn't see much change this year, either).

 

Here's my proposal:

Get together with the largest book retailers (chain and independent) as well as the ALA; for one month ask store customers and library patrons to fill out a survey regarding reading habits and, oh, offer a sweepstakes drawing for, I don't know, a gift card to a book store or perhaps a signed copy of a book (only one entry per customer/patron).  I think that would provide a decent cross-section of both book buyers and book readers.

 

But this would take money and no one has money these days.

Melissa W.
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ande
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Re: #37 What we are reading -- and does it sound right to you?

Melissa:
 
An epidemiologist and a bookseller! Sounds like you'd be the perfect person to supervise a study. And I like your on-the-ground one-month survey idea alot.
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debbook
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Re: #37 What we are reading -- and does it sound right to you?

I think reading can't be that much on the decline if you have people standing in line to get books, and going to the bookstore at midnight when new releases go on sale, ie Harry Potter, Twilight. I know this doesn't happen for all authors but for me that says alot. I love books, but to stand in line at midnight, hmm, I don't think so. I see people all the time carrying a book. So that is my survey, how scientific is that?
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thewanderingjew
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Re: #37 What we are reading -- and does it sound right to you?

I wonder if the decline of the neighborhood book store, complete with knowledgeable booksellers, would be a reason for what they perceive to be a decline? There were times when I would just browse in a book store and chat with the owner. Books are eye candy for me. Often, I left with more books than I intended because the owner knew so much and offered so much advice that I fell in love with books I had never heard of. Today, it is hard to find someone working in a big chain book store that even heard of the books I am looking for, let alone read them. Conversations and suggestions are rare. I suppose with modern technology books come out so fast and furiously that it is hard to keep up.

twj

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Re: #37 What we are reading -- and does it sound right to you?

Interesting point, TWJ. I wonder if we could get Melissa to speak to it as she is a bookseller of the knowledgeable type (and works for a chain, I believe).
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ande
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Re: #37 What we are reading -- and does it sound right to you?


debbook wrote:
I think reading can't be that much on the decline if you have people standing in line to get books, and going to the bookstore at midnight when new releases go on sale, ie Harry Potter, Twilight. I know this doesn't happen for all authors but for me that says alot. I love books, but to stand in line at midnight, hmm, I don't think so. I see people all the time carrying a book. So that is my survey, how scientific is that?

 

I know what you mean. Everwhere I go people are either reading or carrying books. And the bookstore I go into are filled with people. But I live in Boston. Not sure where you are based.
 
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Re: #37 What we are reading -- and does it sound right to you?

I must be incredibly lucky as the people at my B & N are so knowledgible.  One day, after seeing an interview with an author on Book TV where he mentioned the one book that changed his life, I went right over to B & N to get it.  By the time I'd gotten there I'd forgotten not only the title but the author!  I went to the information desk and told him that an author on Book TV  had said that this certain book had  changed his life.  I didn't  know the title or the author but the photos were taken by Walker Evans.  In a flash he said "Let's Praise Famous Men" and within 3 minutes I had the book in my hand.  Unbelievable!  I'm still in awe!
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Re: #37 What we are reading -- and does it sound right to you?

Or, to give the full title, "Let us Now Praise Famous Men."  Walker Evans is rightly famous for the incredible photographs, but the text by James Agee is nothing to sneeze at either.


Timbuktu2 wrote:
I must be incredibly lucky as the people at my B & N are so knowledgible.  One day, after seeing an interview with an author on Book TV where he mentioned the one book that changed his life, I went right over to B & N to get it.  By the time I'd gotten there I'd forgotten not only the title but the author!  I went to the information desk and told him that an author on Book TV  had said that this certain book had  changed his life.  I didn't  know the title or the author but the photos were taken by Walker Evans.  In a flash he said "Let's Praise Famous Men" and within 3 minutes I had the book in my hand.  Unbelievable!  I'm still in awe!

 

 

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Re: #37 What we are reading -- and does it sound right to you?

I usually have good luck at B&N too. And I'm one of those annoying customers that only has a vague idea of title and can't remember the author. I do try to find it on my own before I bother the booksellers though.

Timbuktu2 wrote:
I must be incredibly lucky as the people at my B & N are so knowledgible.  One day, after seeing an interview with an author on Book TV where he mentioned the one book that changed his life, I went right over to B & N to get it.  By the time I'd gotten there I'd forgotten not only the title but the author!  I went to the information desk and told him that an author on Book TV  had said that this certain book had  changed his life.  I didn't  know the title or the author but the photos were taken by Walker Evans.  In a flash he said "Let's Praise Famous Men" and within 3 minutes I had the book in my hand.  Unbelievable!  I'm still in awe!

 

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Re: #37 What we are reading -- and does it sound right to you?


Everyman wrote:

Or, to give the full title, "Let us Now Praise Famous Men."  Walker Evans is rightly famous for the incredible photographs, but the text by James Agee is nothing to sneeze at either.


Timbuktu2 wrote:
I must be incredibly lucky as the people at my B & N are so knowledgible.  One day, after seeing an interview with an author on Book TV where he mentioned the one book that changed his life, I went right over to B & N to get it.  By the time I'd gotten there I'd forgotten not only the title but the author!  I went to the information desk and told him that an author on Book TV  had said that this certain book had  changed his life.  I didn't  know the title or the author but the photos were taken by Walker Evans.  In a flash he said "Let's Praise Famous Men" and within 3 minutes I had the book in my hand.  Unbelievable!  I'm still in awe!

 

 


 


I still can't remember the title!  LOL!

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Re: #37 What we are reading -- and does it sound right to you?

Yep, I flog books at my local B&N.

 

I'm not too sure if I can speak to twj's point.  To be honest, I've never had a customer actually ask me what I read or like to read; the usual assumption is that I've read whatever it is he/she is looking for and since we carry approximately 250,000 titles in the store with another million or so to order, the chances are not great.  I think that you'll find most of us love to recommend books and we love to talk about books we like (at least at my store).  I also tend to rely on my fellow booksellers for help in genres I don't read.  If you're looking for graphic novels, I'll try and get one of our comic enthusiasts to come help you if they happen to be working.  If you want romance suggestions, I'll see if Ann or Janice can come help.  And so on through some other genres, but those other booksellers have to be working at the time otherwise you get what I can come up with via some help from the computer (my fellows will come get me when customers are lost in poetry, Shakespeare, literature, and history so the information and help flows both ways).

 

I think what hurts actual bookstores more is undercutting by non-bookstores (i.e. Wal-mart, Target, Costco, etc) and Internet retail.  I think the most irritating phrases I hear when I offer to order a book for a customer is "I'll order it from the Internet" or "so-and-so is selling this for only *insert rediculously low-price here*".


ande wrote:
Interesting point, TWJ. I wonder if we could get Melissa to speak to it as she is a bookseller of the knowledgeable type (and works for a chain, I believe).


 

Melissa W.
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Re: #37 What we are reading -- and does it sound right to you?

Thanks Melissa; from your reply, I would guess you are part of a rare breed today who does more than just her job description and really wants to do a good job. I would love to shop in your  store! So often today, it seems that employees seem to be just biding their time until their shift is over. Maybe it is me being too critical or maybe it is just that I prefer a small store environment, a neighborhood store feel and they are going by the wayside, fast and furiously. That said, I do buy most of my books at Barnes and Noble since that is where I usually wind up for lack of a small store nearby. I like the way the books are displayed and I usually know what book I want to purchase before I enter its environs! It just means that I only leave with my original list of books and no new suggestions as a bonus, as I used to do
twj

 
pedsphleb wrote:

Yep, I flog books at my local B&N.

 

I'm not too sure if I can speak to twj's point.  To be honest, I've never had a customer actually ask me what I read or like to read; the usual assumption is that I've read whatever it is he/she is looking for and since we carry approximately 250,000 titles in the store with another million or so to order, the chances are not great.  I think that you'll find most of us love to recommend books and we love to talk about books we like (at least at my store).  I also tend to rely on my fellow booksellers for help in genres I don't read.  If you're looking for graphic novels, I'll try and get one of our comic enthusiasts to come help you if they happen to be working.  If you want romance suggestions, I'll see if Ann or Janice can come help.  And so on through some other genres, but those other booksellers have to be working at the time otherwise you get what I can come up with via some help from the computer (my fellows will come get me when customers are lost in poetry, Shakespeare, literature, and history so the information and help flows both ways).

 

I think what hurts actual bookstores more is undercutting by non-bookstores (i.e. Wal-mart, Target, Costco, etc) and Internet retail.  I think the most irritating phrases I hear when I offer to order a book for a customer is "I'll order it from the Internet" or "so-and-so is selling this for only *insert rediculously low-price here*".


ande wrote:
Interesting point, TWJ. I wonder if we could get Melissa to speak to it as she is a bookseller of the knowledgeable type (and works for a chain, I believe).


 


 

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Re: #37 What we are reading -- and does it sound right to you?

  I had heard that the biggest competitor with the bookstore is the internet, not online reading, but second hand book sites.   I love B&N, but I have fallen in love with my e-reader.  I wonder how that technology will affect bookstores.  I know I haven't spent as mch time in the bookstore as I once did, because of mainly space.   The e-reader solves that problem for me.   I will always spend time in the bookstore, though.

 

 

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Re: #37 What we are reading -- and does it sound right to you?

I generally read more fiction than non-fiction.  I love (sarcastically) studies about how we don't read anymore.  If that's the case, why is publishing thriving?  How come there's almost always a line at the bookstore?

 

I think these studies are similar to the ones about how computers/MTV/Radio/TV/Cable are the root of the end of civilization as we know it.  Not true. I'm a reader who was raised by readers and who raised two readers.  My daughter and I regularly talk about what we're reading and what the other one might like.

sierra58