Sunday, July 08, 2007

Toward a post-literate society?

A sampling of "some startling statistics" (From Robyn Jackson, via Erma Bombeck, via Andrew Sullivan). I can't vouch for their accuracy, but they sound generally plausible:
1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years. [....]
Each day in the U.S., people spend 4 hours watching TV, 3 hours listening to the radio and 14 minutes reading magazines.
Etc. Interesting, if true.

Nevertheless ...
About 120,000 books are published each year in the U.S. [....]
(more like 170,000 books, according to the original source), and I assume most of those are purchased rather than eventually pulped, so someone out there must be reading them. (Of course, the US population is now around 300 million.)

Rates of book publication and book reading in different western societies vary considerably. (The rates reported for Britain and Scandinavia, for example, are a lot higher than for the US, dropping off sharply in countries like Italy, Greece, and Portugal--though even in Sweden one study found that 30 per cent of adults hadn't read a book during the previous year.) But there seems to be an overall trend toward fewer people reading fewer books over time. Maybe they're reading stuff on the Internet instead?

=> The Italian writer Alberto Moravia once remarked that, over the centuries, the proportion of illiterates in the population has remained constant, but nowadays the illiterates know how to read. ("Il rapporto fra alfabetismo e analfabetismo รจ costante, ma al giorno d'oggi gli analfabeti sanno leggere.") Maybe, maybe not.

--Jeff Weintraub

P.S. The friend who first told me about that Moravia quotation added that the last point--i.e., nowadays the illiterates can read--struck him as a bit optimistic. Did Moravia, he wondered, ever have much experience with large-scale undergraduate teaching? Just a joke, I'm sure ...