A new poll by the Associated Press and the accompanying story published everywhere (I link to USA Today for no particular reason) reveals that 73% of Americans read a book in the last year. That’s a much higher number than the 6% I remember seeing reported elsewhere or even the 57% noted in a 2004 report mentioned in the article. How the question is posed and how response error (or straight up lying) is handled could account for a lot of the variance. Interestingly, readers gravitate toward religious works and popular fiction, and the typical number of books read yearly is about seven.
True to form, though, the news story tries to scare us with the spectre of 27% of Americans who are nonreaders. A percentage of them are no doubt illiterate, and another percentage of them are non-English speakers/readers or are functionally illiterate in English.
It’s impossible to know quite what to make of such a story. Although book sales are reported to be flat for the past few years, there are still many, many books being read, and not just by enthusiasts. I always see lots of people on the train commute reading, and the Chicago Public Library routinely has lots of patrons. Moreover, lots of folks are reading newspapers, journals, and blogs. But the book, understandably, remains the flagship bearer of textual value. So are we really curious and well-informed folks, or are our reading habits marked by lethargy and enthusiasm for mere entertainment?
Ultimately, this poll (where is the poll data, BTW?) and story have all the earmarks of a “significant” bit of information that is in actually just so much fluff. The fuller story is told in “Reading at Risk.” If it’s true that responsible civic participation requires both knowledge and paying attention, to say nothing of the ability to think critically about what’s going on, then I fear we far more likely to see the average citizen offering up blithering nonsense like the would-be beauty queen who couldn’t respond to the question about a fifth of American’s inability to find the U.S. on the map.