The Uncomfortable Evoloution of Book Reading

trouble readingRecently, the findings of the National Endowment for the Arts literacy report were published and, as the Boston Globe reported, produced a prodigious amount of hand wringing from librarians, educators, parents and publishers.  The report highlighted the continuing decline of reading proficiency.  Proficiency, as the term is used in the report, is defined as being able to read the daily newspaper. 

gadget overloadThe primary reasons cited were the faltering educational system, media distractions and gadgets that change the nature of the reading experience.  Patricia S. Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers (AAP), suggested the decline in reading among children could be related to the lack of available books that interest them.  Paradoxically, the AAAP reported that sales in the Children /Young Adult hardcover category year-to-date were up by 63.0 percent and the Children /Young Adult paperback category increased by 4.4 percent for the year.

Worldwide reading scores produced by the Progress in International Reading LIteracy Study showed which countries were doing well and which weren’t.  Russia, Singapore and Hong Kong scored best.  Rounding out the top 10 were Luxembourg, Italy, Hungary, Sweden, Germany, The Netherlands and Flemish-speaking parts of Belgium.  The US ranked 14th, England 15th.  The study was conducted by Boston College and assessed the ability of 215,000 fourth graders to read literary and informational texts.  The worst performances came from South Africa, Morocco, Kuwait, Qatar, Indonesia, Iran, Trinidad and Tobago, Macedonia, Georgia and Romania.  The study covered 40 countries in all.

old bookSo does this spell doom for book publishers?  I think not.  Books are the oldest media and are constantly evolving as the reading habits and needs of civilization evolve.  Books trump all other media for adaptability.  As an example:

  • Print on demand and web marketing made book publishing the first participative media vs. just a spectator sport
  • Books are the ultimate fragmented media, serving ever more finely delineated market niches
  • Books have been deconstructed into other forms – cell phones, e-books, audio books
  • Book have been time sliced for our convenience – delivered in parts via e-mail or available for rental like a NetFlix DVD
  • Books are becoming more visual – for example, manga and the graphic novel
  • Books have explored the social domain both online – ala LibraryThing, Shelfari and book widgets – and offline, as can be seen in the exploding popularity of book clubs

All of these bode well for books and reading.  I think it is just the transitions that make us uncomfortable, like a little turbulence on a long flight. 

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