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copyright Cas Blomberg

According to this reading infographic from Common Sense Media, 75% of families have access to some type of e-reader, and yet 27% of 17-year-olds said they ‘never’ or ‘hardly ever’ read. 45% of 17-year-olds said they only read a book once or twice a year.

According to this reading infographic from Raymond Geddes, 33% of all high school graduates will never read a book after graduation. If you have three or more teenagers, take a hard look at all three of them, because chances are once they don their caps and gowns, one of them is never going to experience the joy of reading another book for the rest of his or her life. 

I was shocked at the correlation between crime and illiteracy; not so much that a link exists, but how much of a link. A full 2/3 of students who cannot read by the time they enter fifth grade will end up in jail or on welfare.

Wow.

The benefits of reading aren’t a secret. For years studies have shown picking up a book leads to better communication, increased creativity, lower stress levels, improved memory and a host of other benefits. What is new is our definitions. Over the past couple of years, how we define the word ‘reading’ is just as important as whether or not we engage in the act.

In my research, I’ve run across blogs from people, particularly young people, decrying the data floating around on cyberspace infographics. After all, this is the age of technology and they do read–all freakin’ day long, thank you very much–on the computer. They scan articles, read e-mail, blog posts, and any number of other virtual articles that jump across their path on a daily basis. The sheer number of things available to read is overwhelming and most people can’t recall everything they’ve read by the time they sit down to dinner. Books? Who has time for books?

Valid points.

It’s all about our ability to adapt, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter what I read, as long as I’m reading. We have to roll with technology, or we’ll be left in the dust. The age of the future is now and spending our precious time on anything other than brief staccato bursts of information is outdated, and to be frank, pointless. In the span of twenty minutes, I can read multiple articles about the health benefits of blueberries, symbolism in 17th century religious texts, and how we can achieve peace once and for all in Gaza. Not only am I reading, I’m more informed than I ever have been, and certainly more aware of the world around me than I would be if I read a book about first contact with aliens, so why should I waste my time with such old-fashioned activities? Especially when other entertainment venues, like Netflix, are so readily available and more visually engaging.

Books are a thing of the past.

Or are they?

According to Time magazine, in their article Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer, we shouldn’t give up on reading books, paper or electronic versions, just yet.

“Deep reading” — as opposed to the often superficial reading we do on the Web — is an endangered practice, one we ought to take steps to preserve as we would a historic building or a significant work of art. Its disappearance would imperil the intellectual and emotional development of generations growing up online, as well as the perpetuation of a critical part of our culture: the novels, poems and other kinds of literature that can be appreciated only by readers whose brains, quite literally, have been trained to apprehend them.

Actually, I think this applies to many mediums, not just the written word. It feels like we’ve traded internal reflection for external scanning. My husband can spend an entire Saturday watching a twenty-episode marathon of Being Human. For the love of all that is holy, how, I ask, can he process all of those episodes? What happened to taking time to ponder the complexities of a plotline? Are we in such a hurry to speed past life that we gloss over the complexities of it, or miss it entirely? Have we embraced the destination instead of the journey? If so, are we ready to toss out something as precious as books and exchange them for bullet-point articles because we just don’t have time to waste on such clearly frivolous activities anymore?

As always, I love a good balance. I’m not advocating one over the other. I think there’s plenty of space for both ‘surface’ reading and ‘deep’ reading in our world.

I’ll be the first to admit I browse the internet and skim articles. For someone with a mental bookshelf overflowing with interests from whale songs to the life of monks in 14th century Italy, there are days when the internet is nothing more than a deathtrap for me. I have to force myself to step away from the computer, or at least to randomly shut down all the tabs I have open. It’s my method of redirecting myself to what’s important; my own personal trick of reminding myself the world goes on even if all those strings of research suddenly vanished. Surface reading, in all its shameless, non-reflective glory, gives me access to a wide variety of information in a short amount of time. And it’s usually always available. My brain has adapted, to some extent, to allow for this burst reading. What impact these changes will have on our brains and development over an extended period is still up in the air, but make no mistake about it, this type of ‘reading’ is here to stay.

On the other hand, as much as I love scanning my day through the internet, I’m not ready to throw away my books. There’s no equivalent to a good book. Not even a good movie can compare, in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy life. But other than experiencing every possible situation in life (unfortunately impossible given the current research into time travel), there is no greater way for me to know myself, than to spend time reflecting on the lives of others, be they fictional or real, and how they react in any given situation.

Behind the covers of the classics, or even modern-day bestsellers, books teach me about life. By experiencing the joy and sorrow of other characters, I’m able to understand a little more about myself, not to mention humanity in general. Within hundreds and thousands of pages from dozens of authors, I can set foot in cities I’ve never seen, and begin to feel the undercurrent of life in places I may never have a chance to visit. I’m able to place myself in situations I may never find myself in, or have an argument with people I may never encounter. If a subject is especially fascinating, or a new culture so vibrantly detailed that I can feel the lace between my fingers, or smell the pine in my mind, or feel the anguish of a broken heart as a man holds his dying wife’s hand, I will spend days, weeks, and, yes, in some cases months and years thinking about not only what I felt, but the characters who came to life within those pages.

Let’s not stop there. Those are ways I experience a story, but books offer so much more. Not only are novels entertaining, they teach me new words and new expressions. By reading, I challenge myself and if I’m lucky, I tear down self-imposed and society-imposed social, cultural, ethnic, and language barriers. No other medium has the ability to do that to such a degree and the studies are showing our brains and how they react finally offers proof to such bold claims.

According to the studies, deep reading also helps us understand social complexities and empathize with other human beings in a way that skimming, trolling, or flaming never can. In an age where some people cannot discuss or debate a point unless it’s in e-mail form, this has become a critical life skill. I’ve met people who are literally unable to speak to my face, but they can post a very passionate rant on Facebook, albeit one littered with misspellings and sometimes way off-topic. We need to learn how to communicate with others.

And maybe, just maybe, if we learn how to better understand each other as a people, concepts like ‘peace’ might not be so insurmountable.

Even though we live in the digital world, let’s not abandon the traditional one just yet. After all, according to this New York Times piece,

Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.

While I love having a world full of instant articles at my fingertips, I’m not ready to give up my books. You’ll find me here, hanging onto this antiquated fashion long after it’s gone out of style. How about you?

6 thoughts on “Are Books Dying?

  1. I could never give up my books, they are the only possessions my home has beyond its sparse furniture and sparse clothing closet! They are the food in which I chew, digest, and like a cow, bring back up to chew on again! Succulent pieces of summer rained grass… mmm mmm mmm

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    1. I’ve wondered about that, too. ‘Quality’ isn’t really the trending word these days. Since the 1800’s there have always been dime novels (or their equivalent) catering to a niche group of readers. In today’s era, some consider those equivalents mainstream ‘beach’ novels that can be finished in a couple of hours, for others it might be YA vampires or steamy sex books and for others the sub-standards of some indie published books (not all, but some), no matter how intricate the plot. I have to believe, no matter who we are and what we read, if we start there, we’ll move on to experience the rich world of something a bit more complex than what we began with . . . I hope!

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