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January 14th, 2008


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03:25 am - Thoughts on Declining Literacy
Here's an interesting, but also highly problematic and deeply flawed New Yorker article on declining literacy. The figures are widely known and indisputable – on average, people read less for pleasure now than they did a decade ago, and this trend has been going on since at least the introduction of television. Yet one of the many ways pretty much everyone reading this post is different from the average American (and for that matter, the average inhabitant of the UK, the decline in reading extends well beyond the US) is that I'm assuming that all of us have read a number of books for pleasure in the last year, and more than half of all Americans have not read any books for pleasure in the last year.

The article then goes on to discuss everything from a variety of moderately dire (and somewhat unlikely) predictions as well as some discussion of differences in pre-literate vs. literate modes of thought [[1]]. I'd need to see considerably more studies to be fully convinced about the different modes of thought among literate and pre-literate people. I'm also not particularly worried about the majority of our culture reverting to pre-literate modes of thought – I don't see the emphasis on reading in school being particularly likely change anytime soon. Also, there is a big difference between an oral culture without enduring records, and a culture with recorded podcasts and audiobooks, both of which are quite popular indeed. I could easily see reading falling further out of fashion of an entertainment, but even with various technological changes, reading will remain useful. At most, I can see reading becoming something like algebra, where everyone learns it in school, some people use it in their work, and only a few people ever use it as a method of entertainment.

As for the aforementioned predictions, being trained as a historian, I take a bit of a longer view. Prior to the invention of printing presses, literacy was inherently limited to the elite. Even with the widespread use of printing in the early 17th century, literacy was relatively uncommon (if no longer rare) and popular novels and the idea of reading as mass entertainment did not exist. Also, the people who read mostly read old classics, instructional and religious books, and various essays and scholarly works. The first magazines only came about in the middle of the 18th century. This trend continued until the 19th century, when the first widely-printed popular novels came about (made possible by significantly decreased printing and papermaking costs – the degree to which technology drives and determines culture is always quite profound).

When you look at the situation in this longer view, 200 years ago, people were reading considerably less then they are now, even if you only include people who knew how to read. The mass culture of reading for pleasure is less than 2 centuries old. It largely started in the first few decades of the 19th century, with stories in popular magazines and the rise of cheap novels and spread to become major social phenomena. By the early 20th century, mass market books had become respectable (at least if they were in the correct genres) and truly vast number of people were reading significant numbers of books for pleasure. Then, television came around in the middle of the last century, and the gradual decline began.

However, while on-line music is already very important and on-line video is still in the early phase of rapid growth and will become very big indeed (until the difference between on-line video and TV utterly vanishes sometime within the next 10-20 years), text is not going to vanish from the internet. More importantly, I'm guessing that IM, blogs, and the spread of fanfiction have all gotten younger people writing for entertainment and communication far more than ever before. No, they won't be reading great literature for pleasure, but few people ever did, even when reading was at its height. Writing will clearly remain a useful means of communication until someone figures out electronic telepathy, and at that point, all bets are off and I won't even begin to speculate honestly about what things will be like.

I was also interested to see one absence from the article I linked to, one very obvious and important absence. Half the population of the US, Canada, and the UK rarely read for pleasure, this half is not defined by race, class, or education level, it's defined by gender. On average, women in all three nations read several times more than men and in these nations, only 1/5 of all fiction being read is read by men. This figure is unavoidable in any surveys about reading preferences and among educators who discuss reading, and yet in articles like the one above that are more focused on literary culture, it is an obvious fact that is almost always ignored or downplayed.

In any case, what we have is not a large-scale general decline in reading for pleasure. Instead, we have a mild decline in women reading and a serious decline in men reading – I don't know the reasons why, but that's what's actually happening.

[[1]] Not unexpectedly, my first thought in reading about non-literate modes of thought was to be fascinated by them and to consider that if/when the tech to do so becomes available, I'd love to be able to easily and temporarily switch between literacy and non-literacy so that I could experience the different modes of thought, and then start finding situations where each mode was either superior or more enjoyable.
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Comments:


[User Picture]
From:andrewducker
Date:January 14th, 2008 11:34 am (UTC)
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We have a decline in men reading _books_.

How many of them are reading newspapers, magazines or websites?

It wouldn't surprise me if many men are still reading, but doing so for news/sport and other purposes which are easily satisfied online.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:January 14th, 2008 12:14 pm (UTC)
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Maybe people read less because they have less time. After all, more people have to work longer hours just to keep food on the table. At the same time, commutes are getting longer, and you can't read and drive at the same time. People also have less money to spend on books and library funding is getting cut, so access to books may also be declining.
From:nancylebov
Date:January 14th, 2008 01:36 pm (UTC)
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Some of them are listening to books, though, even if it's not nearly as many as listen to music.
From:nancylebov
Date:January 14th, 2008 01:37 pm (UTC)
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My first thought about the huge number of illiterate people is to imagine a net for them--it shouldn't be that hard, what with icons and audio. For all I know, there are quite a few illiterate people online already,
[User Picture]
From:martin_wisse
Date:January 14th, 2008 02:16 pm (UTC)
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Sorry, I had trouble reading your post. Could you use smaller words?
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From:pompe
Date:January 14th, 2008 02:28 pm (UTC)
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That Stalin-age Uzbekh study I've come across in pedagogics, which makes me suspicious right from the start, knowing how unstable and underresearched the field is. Seriously, I doubt many other fields are as vulnerable to mood swings. The science of teaching and learning is nowhere near a qualitative and quantitative mindset like the one found in many natural sciences and harder humanities.
[User Picture]
From:pompe
Date:January 14th, 2008 03:01 pm (UTC)
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Also, I looked up a local study here which claims that reading of fiction actually is up, and that more people read compared to a decade ago. The books hardest hit by Internet are non-fiction books where there's a decline - and as men tend to read proportionally more non-fiction and less books in absolutes it isn't hard to see they're the ones hit by this drop. But they likely still read, just on a screen.

Plus, you have take into account that the actual spare time available to a person today is much higher than a century ago, so even if reading is a smaller part of our spare time it need not be that drastic a drop in actual minutes.

That said, I'm not sure if my country is indicative. The reading of books and newspapers are fairly wide in class, 80% of the population reads books and some 87% newspapers, and there's a lot of reading in school, and the lowered sales tax on books have probably had effect too. Plus, a fairly big part of the population are heavy readers. Slightly above one third of the population claim to have more than 200 books, which apparently by EU standards is much. Overall it seems as reading is rather high in the Nordic countries, I'm not sure if it is fairly easy access to English books, school system differences (reading more in school in particular) or old Lutheran traditions or something else.
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From:athenian_abroad
Date:January 14th, 2008 03:36 pm (UTC)
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An actually disturbing passage from the NY'er article:
According to the Department of Education, between 1992 and 2003 ... the proportion who were proficient—capable of such tasks as “comparing viewpoints in two editorials”—declined from fifteen per cent to thirteen.
Fifteen percent? Can this be correct? Shouldn't getting this figure up into the 80%+ range be a major priority?
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From:geek_dragon
Date:January 14th, 2008 07:06 pm (UTC)
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Gah, I just skimmed the article. That is actually pretty disturbing.
I wondered how they measured that, and on who.
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From:heron61
Date:January 14th, 2008 08:50 pm (UTC)
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Agreed, but I wonder if this problem also applies to people being able to compare opinion pieces on TV. Newspaper reading has been plummeting of late. This might well be a very dire piece of info, but if it only applies to written media, when it's merely a question of media comfort and not overall capability.

Also, even if true overall, I suspect that this particular figure (unlike the more general decline in reading) is largely confined to the US. Compared to most other first world nations, people in the US are not taught basic critical skills in school. That definitely needs to change.
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From:geek_dragon
Date:January 14th, 2008 07:03 pm (UTC)
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I think more people are writing, maybe less people are reading. It would balance out if more people are exercising more. Also, lots of culture isn't written: music, art, theatre, videogames, movies. So maybe the lack of reading is balanced by an increase in volunteering. experiencing culture, that sort of thing.
Also, what if people are reading more for school, or to keep up at work, and more people are going to school as well as teaching themselves to stay current?
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From:kalyx
Date:January 14th, 2008 07:15 pm (UTC)
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this is similar to something I discovered in the last few days. My partner has been turning on MTV Hits in the evenings when we're just lounging, reading, eating, whatever. He did it as a test to see how hip he is. He wanted to know what percentage of pop music artists he was able to recognize.

Well, I've never been particularly hip, but I found myself mesmerized by the songs. Because pop music has always been the lowest common denominator of music so I don't expect it to be smart, but the songs were downright retarded. Apparently we have become a culture where the hit songs consist of one 2-4 word phrase repeated for the duration. While this does make it easy to sing along, at what point did verses or even a full chorus disappear? Have we become so dumb as a culture that writing catchy verses has become anachronistic?
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From:hasufin
Date:January 14th, 2008 07:41 pm (UTC)
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The article seems to me to be missing the point that almost all use of the internet is written - even the most flash and graphics-ridden website has a foundation of text. Test to navigate, text to caption, text to discuss. If anything, this use of text emphasizes the value of the "ventral path" mentioned.

To pretend that internet usage is not relevant to literacy, would be to complain that the advent of bound books in the 4th century CE decimated readership: nobody used scrolls anymore.

This isn't to say there is not necessarily a declining readership, but rather that I don't find the case terribly compelling. It seems to me that the studies in question fail to take the various media into account and as such are too deeply flawed to provide information for any conclusion.

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