Opinion-- As someone who wishes to become a novelist, it is not the thought of someone judging the worth of my writing that makes me nervous. It is people’s lack of interest in reading books that will keep mine from ever being judged and that makes me nervous.
With the mention of Harry Potter so prevalent in political discourse, it is reasonable to draw the conclusion that reading is a popular trend in the United States. Unfortunately, literary references or discussion outside of Harry Potter occur significantly less often. The continued popularity of children's books becomes meaningless when juxtaposed by the decline in popularity for adult literature, and the absence of serious fiction to challenge people's imaginations and broaden their perspective reveals just part of what society has lost from failing to read.
The problem is complex, as a distinction must be made when looking at studies that focus on Americans and their reading habits. Millennials are not to blame for this trend, as they are more inclined to read than the generations before them. According to a study by Pew Research, 72 percent of Americans have read a book this year compared to 80 percent for millennials. The rate of 72 percent in 2015 was a decline from 76 percent of adults having read a book in 2014. With the number of Americans obtaining college degrees on the rise, the number of books read should be on an increase, because this group historically reads more than the average person. However, even this group of highly educated Americans has experienced a decline in number of books read.
If a society does not value reading, then it can allow those who struggle with reading to suffer unnoticed. Illiteracy and a lack of reading is already a problem in the U.S., as 50 percent of U.S. adults cannot read beyond an eighth grade level, 33 percent of high school graduates will never pick up a book after graduation, and 42 percent of college graduates will never read a book after graduation. The most startling figure is that 80 percent of U.S. families did not make a trip to the bookstore in 2016, and that 70 percent of adults have not been to one in the past five years. This can have profound effects on the children being brought up in those households. Studies have indicated that children who are read to at home three to four nights a week are more successful at school.
In the U.S., the mean number of books read by a person annually is about 12 books. This number is in stark contrast to the median number of four books read annually. This shows a wide gap between those who do read and those who do not. Americans are almost as likely to read 11 or more books per year as they are to read zero books per year, according to numbers recorded in 2014.
This is not a result of the increased popularity of audiobooks or e-readers in the United States. The National Endowment for the Arts has tracked the decline of Americans reading one work of literature per year from 56.9 percent in 1982 to 43.1 percent in 2015. The study from the NEA looks specifically at reading for pleasure and counts the use of audiobooks and e-readers.
Given that higher numbers of Americans are achieving college education and therefore should fall into the group of people reading more frequently, the data instead shows decreases across the board for every group of people. In fact, only about 10 percent of children are reading books for fun, according to a 2015 survey.
Looking at the literacy rate, at the national level, we can see the ramifications it has on the population. Three out of five prisoners in the U.S. cannot read, and some states can even project future prison populations based off of current elementary school literacy rates. The Literacy Project Foundation found that 50 percent of Americans read so poorly that they cannot perform basic tasks such as reading drug prescriptions, that three out of four people on welfare cannot read, and that 46 to 51 percent of Americans have an income below the poverty level because of their inability to read. Illiteracy costs American taxpayers around $20 billion, or up to $330 billion, each year.
The effects of failing to read move beyond statistics and literacy rates. Even those who are literate benefit from reading in one’s freetime. One study, by Keith Oatley, showed the link between the region of the brain associated with reading comprehension and the ability to understand other people. Another study on Empathy and Fiction shows that people who read fiction are more inclined to be empathetic towards other people. In a time where rhetoric has become so divisive, reading would be able to aide us in understanding opposing opinions. Countless studies exist to show the benefit of reading and why it should take up more of our time.
Americans would be better off if they spent a little more time turning pages and a little less time behind a screen. Once reading becomes a habit, people can be brought to amazing places and learn valuable lessons. In Ray Bradbury’s famous novel, Fahrenheit 451, he said something quite fitting about the power of reading. “There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”
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