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Why We Don't Read


At the New Yorker website, Caleb Crain examines numerous studies and statistics regarding the evolving reading habits of Americans (though the data is suggestive of reading habits in other countries too). What he finds—besides the fact that measuring people’s reading habits is actually quite tricky—is less than surprising: in recent decades Americans have spent progressively less time reading and more time watching TV. Here’s an excerpt:

Perhaps whatever is eating away at reading is also eating away at socializing. More and more people are taking part in “game playing” and “computer use for leisure, excluding games,” even as the time that devotees spend on the activities holds steady. It’s possible, too, that the numbers may be reflecting a shift in the way that people read news and essays. As best as I can tell from the survey’s coding instructions, reading an e-book and listening to an audiobook both count as “reading.” With computer activity, which would seem to include the use of smartphones, the survey-taker is supposed to “code the activity the respondent did as the primary activity,” which presumably means that reading a newspaper or magazine online would also be classified as “reading.” But “browsing on the internet” is listed in the survey’s official lexicon as an example of “computer use for leisure, excluding games.” So there’s a chance that people who used to read the newspaper in print and be counted as “reading” are now doing so online and being counted as Web surfers.

But, at last, we come to the rival to reading known as television, and find a footprint worthy of a Sasquatch.

Television, rather than the Internet, likely remains the primary force distracting Americans from books. The proportion of the American population that watches TV must have hit a ceiling some time ago; in the years studied by the American Time Use Survey, it’s very stable, at a plateau of about eighty per cent—roughly four times greater than the proportion of Americans who read. But America’s average TV time is still rising, because TV watchers are, incredibly, watching more and more of it, the quantity rising from 3.28 hours in 2003 to 3.45 hours in 2016.

Image via the New Yorker.