Tuesday, August 21, 2007

reading survey results

An article by the Associated Press published today says some interesting things about the way Americans read. Sadly, not many of the statements are surprising, and in fact many stereotypes are reinforced. Like:

Liberal democrats read more than conservative republicans.
Women read twice as much as men.
People with college degrees read more.
People who go to church read half as much as non-church goers.
Men prefer non-fiction.

Some interesting numbers:
Percentage of people who did not read a book last year: 27
Median number of books read: 4
Median number of books read by people who have read at least one book: 7 (9 for women, 5 for men)

One of the men quoted in the article says that if he wanted a story, he'd go to a movie. Personally, I read for the story most of the time. I'm not a big non-fiction reader, but I've enjoyed watching non-fiction television like nature, science, and history programs on public television. I find this interesting. Why would this be? Does the fact that I have ovaries mean that I am better equipped to endure hundreds of pages of story rather than watching a couple hours of action? And that I can't focus my pretty little head enough to read a book on airplanes? More likely this is a culturally influenced phenomenon along with the idea that girls don't like math and would prefer to write poetry and learn to play the piano.

And what's all this about the level of education and the church-going and the politics? You don't have to be smart to read, unless you can't read at all, of course. There are plenty of easy to read books out there. Maybe those with less education are having to work harder and don't have time to read at all. Although certain people (hi guys!) might talk about how much smarter liberals are, for example, I really don't want that to be the reason why conservatives read less. These numbers depress me. I mean, come on, I'd be happy if some statistic, somewhere, would contradict our assumptions about these things.

Or, maybe I've got it wrong all along. Maybe reading a lot isn't good. Maybe all this work we do to encourage lifelong literacy and book reading is a waste and we should just embrace other forms of entertainment and education. Maybe I'm just a tool for the book industry and its liberal atheistic immoral agenda.


jacqueline said...

do you believe there is something behind that article published shortly after W was voted into office the first time... where it was noted that the chart with all the counties in the country and whether they voted majority red or blue correlated eerily to the areas of low and high bookstores per capita respectively?

also, I wonder if there is a correlation on # of books published by conservative republicans vs liberal democrats.... do liberals publish more?? Is there more reading material targeted at liberals? Does the fact that I cried like a baby while reading "where the red fern grows" reveal that I am indeed a bleeding heart tax & spend liberal?

rednib said...

Interesting points. It's probable that at least the well-educated are more published, but I don't know about the other correlations. It's possible, of course.

There are so many books out there though that are religious or with traditional values. "Spiritual fiction" and whatnot. You could read 100 books a year of pure-as-the-driven-snow novels and never run out. So, I don't think it's that there aren't books out there for these people to read.

Also, just saying, my conservative grandma cried while reading "where the red fern grows" too.

jacqueline said...

It's a good crying book, for sure.

Perhaps conservative "pure as the driven snow" novels are as interesting as diet food is decadent.

Even Oprah said (in her 5th anniversary edition of Oprah magazine) that in the top 5 books everyone MUST read #1 was Lolita, which surprised me.

Lolita is sinful... controversial... was banned repeatedly. Perhaps the polar opposite of "pure as the driven snow." It explores the what-ifs and romanticizes one of the most odious indulgences a human mind can think of.

Altho I agree Nabokov is one of the most important literary figures of the 20th Century... I'm not sure my conservative grandmother really needs to read this particular book.

I certainly wouldn't buy it for her...

rednib said...

I've been very pleasantly surprised by Oprah's picks over the years, actually. She certainly doesn't shy away from challenging topics. (Aside: Has Oprah ever selected a non-fiction book?)

I'm sure the pure books vary as much as, ahem, unclean books do. The pure books might be more interesting to "pure" people, while the degenerates among us would find them quite boring.

Ooh, I just remembered, I did read a religious novel on recommendation from a very religious acquaintance once. I found it to be quite good and entertaining, even though I didn't agree with it all.

Lien said...

Jonathan Franzen (speaking of "controversial" Oprah nominations...hehe), in his collection of essays "How To Be Alone" posits that there are two kinds of readers. The first are those who have reading as a leisure activity demonstrated to them by their parents. The second are those who, for whatever reasons, used reading as an escape. (Examples of the second group include those who found it difficult to make friends at school, or were a bit socially awkward.)

I guess to figure out why some people read and others don't, you have to ask why anybody reads. Leisure? Escape? For knowledge?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that being a reader does not make you a better person than a non-reader, any more than liking opera makes you a better person than someone who doesn't. So I'm not sure that it's automatically "good".

rednib said...

I've struggled with this idea before too.

One could argue that there are "good" books and "bad" books, and being a voracious reader of "bad" books is just as mind-numbing as watching TV or drinking heavily. I think I remember hearing that when popular books came into fashion, many people thought they were bad for you, much like people now talk about watching TV.

I don't know though, I think just the act of looking at letters and stringing them together into meaning, and then making mental pictures from that meaning is a worthwhile activity for one's brain, regardless of the subject matter.

I think that reading a lot helps people naturally become better spellers and proper grammar, just from seeing it more often. These are not incredibly useful life skills if you aren't using written communication much, it's true, but with the information economy growing as it is, I think writing skills are becoming more important too. (In fact, when I read the comments sections on my newspaper's website, if someone has bad grammar or spelling, their comment is often made fun of and disregarded by the other participants even if they were making a good point.)

All I can say for sure is that I think I personally am better off for having read a lot. I'm not saying that it makes me better than someone who doesn't read, just I'm better than I might have been otherwise. I think that reading lots of books has encouraged my open-mindedness by giving me viewpoints into others' lives that I hadn't considered before, for example. For me, this happens best while reading novels as opposed to magazines or newspapers.

jacqueline said...

I would agree that engaging the pages of a book and converting written word into images in your head is a much better brain-activity than simply watching moving pictures on a screen... much like (as my brother would likely argue), interacting with a video game, and MAKING the main character progress through the various stages and levels exercises a brain more than simply watching a story unfold before you, progressing without any control or feedback from the audience.

But by that logic, attending the theater is no more "enriching" than sitting at home and popping in a chick flick DVD. That seems wrong to me.

I believe there is a place for both interactive media, and story-tellers in our culture that is (mostly) beneficial, but like Lien said, I believe it mostly depends on the reason we individuals partake... escape? leisure? knowledge? I know humans are COMPLETELY enticed by diversion... but as to whether reading is better, who knows?

All I know is the "illiterate" are considered a drain on the society.