Zadie Smith once wrote, in one of her greater essays, that reading must be understood as an activity closer to work than to leisure (her exact analogy finds the reader akin to the amateur musician, who must use “her own, hard-won, skills” to play from “sheet music”), and it seems a growing part of the population agrees with her — or at least responds to the task of tackling a book the same way sensible people respond to unnecessary work, by leaving it be.
In 2014, already, the publishing industry was caught consoling itself on the fact that the percentage of young people who read for pleasure had stopped declining, the only positive trend in otherwise wholly sorry developments. With the share of Americans who haven’t read a single book nearly tripling since 1978, publishers could hardly be blamed for celebrating the possible finding of a rock bottom (rock bottoms are much more popular than we like to think, anyway).
The latest information, courtesy of a survey Pew conducted earlier this year, helps to confirm the trend: counting audio books, 26% of US adults haven’t read a single work in the past year, compared to 23% three years ago. An alarming figure, perhaps made more so (or alleviated, depending on your outlook) with the knowledge that it follows closely Western Europe’s own numbers. In 2013, corresponding statistics stood at 20%, 19%, and 26% for Germany, the UK, and France, respectively — though those don’t take audio books into account, guessing, reasonably, that listening to someone else reading a book isn’t quite the same as reading it yourself. Go figure.
The one positive trend hasn’t changed since 2014, thankfully. In terms of age groups, research found that 80% of responders between 18 and 29 years old are readers, compared to 67% for those aged 65 and over, a disparity which exists whether one considers print, e-books, or their audio variety. Percentages were exactly the same three years ago. This observation has the merit of making clear, if it wasn’t already, that age-induced wisdom doesn’t usually include literacy — a lesson well worth remembering next time you’re faced with an old stink-haired reptile telling you he knows how to fix your country.
For all that, however, the most important lesson to be had here is one of economics, if you’ll excuse my social science. As expected, the greatest disproportions are those found with regard to education and class (which include, of course, their ethnic groupings) with a nearly 25-point difference in reading habits between college-educated and not, and similar disparities hitting those earning less than $30k a year and those earning more than $50k.
There are obviously many ways to interpret this data, and one should be wary of sweeping explanations. Yet the immense discrepancy in education numbers show reading habits are a small reflection of a wider inequality. The failure of American public schools is well known; the prime motors of social mobility for any society have been themselves, for decades, enforcers of a rigid class system, where poorer neighborhoods are consistently equipped with second-rate schools (to paraphrase Nina Simone). If anyone is ever to be successful in tackling the incredible inequality which characterizes the modern American economy, then reform should not be confined solely to defying corporate interests: The country’s education system needs to be fixed, and it needs to be fixed now.