Reading Isn't Dead
We’re Just Getting Older
Appetites change so often but so gradually. We hardly notice when our cravings shift unless it is brought to our attention. I’ve noticed after recently moving twice in a year that my consumption of books has drastically transformed from the hunger I felt in my youth.
One year ago, I abandoned nearly all my belongings to live in a 450 square foot tiny home. Only the essentials had space, so I made the decision to let go of anything I had already loved once, and not look back. My book collection was large, spread out in every room of the two-story house I was leaving, having grown over two generations—my Dad had relieved his shelves a decade before and I gobbled them all up. Rare paperbacks, burly hardcovers, glossy coffee table spreads, they all had to go. Goodbye Robertson Davies and Tom Robbins. It’s been swell Huxley and Adams and Rand (eh, Ayn wasn’t that hard to let go).
While sorting the piles of books, I noticed there were plenty I still had not read despite years of intention and interest. So, I allowed myself one bookshelf for the tiny home, filled with the stories I hadn’t yet enjoyed and the few I return to again and again. A year after moving into my new space, that little bookshelf I gave myself permission for is overflowing as I pack it up once again. Despite moving to a bigger and better place, I have no intention of growing a library collection. I’ll continue to pass onto the thrift store any book, no matter how much I’ve enjoyed it, once I’ve finished it. Minimalism allows no space for sentimentality. In spite of my good intentions to work through and turn over this limited compilation—and the ones I’ve added to it—it seems all these books are still coming with me. On an estimation, I’d say I’ve read ten books in twelve months. Unacceptable! How can I call myself a reader—and a writer—and have consumed only that meager amount?
I used to read a book every few days. There was always one in my bag to be pulled out in a spare moment. I was reading well before I started school as a child, and was quite smug about my literary choices. The summer before sixth grade was spent with the chicken pox at my grandmother’s house. I’d stolen The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood off my mother’s coffee table and whipped through the 600 plus pages of betrayal, friendship, and sex. My Gramma picked it up when I had finished and let me know it was “a little old for me.” But, nothing’s too old for me, I thought. I inhaled every ‘bad book’ I could find. Henry Miller, Anthony Burgess, Anne Rice, and the like. If there were breasts, brutes, blood, or all of the above, I was captivated. By the time I’d graduated high school, my taste had expanded beyond titillation to include authors like Camus and Kafka, with some Hunter S. Thompson sprinkled in for good measure.
I loved to read. As a young person, what else is there to do but what interests you, what you love?
Many people believe that reading is dead. Media circulates ideas about the end of books. It’s screen time, busy lifestyles, or something else to blame. While I don’t think books are dead, I can agree that how much I read has changed. As a mother, a partner, an employee, a student, and a friend, my attention is spread widely across each day. It feels more satisfying to choose Netflix than work my imagination through some interpretation of the written word in the evening. But how did this shift happen?
Research shows that younger people between eighteen and twenty-nine read more than the thirty plus crowd. Our twenties can be a decade of trying things out, becoming comfortable with adult roles and creating our futures. My twenties brought me a family, traveling, and a career. But, I was still a voracious reader. Plane trips, maternity leave, and breastfeeding allowed for a lot of free time to ingest stories. I know I was going through one hundred books a year, but when I think of what I read in the last decade, they all kind of blur together. There were so many series. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Song of Ice and Fire, and The Hunger Games, one after another I binged on them. Becoming a mother, my world was altered in ways I could not predict. Being consumed by fantasy was an escape from the anxieties and changes in my real life. There is optimism in trying out many different possibilities through fiction, an optimism of the unexpected. It makes sense to me that younger people are reading more than older generations. Reading shows the potential for diverging experiences; the optimism of youth.
Still, the facts show that people are not reading very much at all. The Pew Institute, a leading American think tank, found 80% of young adults have read one book a year, compared to 71% of the thirty to fifty crowd. It drops more for seniors, with 35% reading nothing in a year. One book a year seems like a low bench mark to me. Maybe my ten books aren’t looking too shabby after all.
But this decline in reading seems like it’s been going on for as long as I can remember. “The fact is that few of us, and few of our friends and few of our children, have the time to read as much as we would like. We're too busy working or working out or playing or—okay, let's admit it—watching TV,” wrote Mitchell Stephens for the Los Angeles Times in 1991. Articles in the 1970s warned about younger generations forgoing literary habits for passive show watching. Studies, home libraries, and family rooms morphed into home theaters and man caves. But who can blame us for being swayed into visual storytelling over the last one hundred years? We’re wired to respond to it.
Humans have been reading and writing for only about 5,000 years. Our brains didn’t evolve to read, instead we’ve adapted neural circuitry from our visual processes to adjust to this learned skill. In a French study of how the brain responds to reading, it was shown that in literate people—but not illiterate—the left temporal lobe is triggered. This area of the brain is also responsible for vision and spoken language. For thousands of years poetry, lyrics, stories, and information have been expressed mostly in person. Many societies around the world never developed a priority for written record keeping, and others that did often had populations of people with no formal education. We’re social creatures. Telling stories aloud, with visual cues from a production or merely hand gestures and facial expressions from the storyteller, are how most people share creative experiences.
With the printing press becoming mechanicalized by Johann Gutenberg in the 15th century, people were able to produce more books in a faster way. Literary works and general information became easier to access for common people, taking the monopoly of book creation out of the hands of monasteries and the Christian church. Over time, literacy became more accessible for the general populations in Europe and North America. We learned to love to read, to absorb information, and to empathize with both foreign and familiar characters.
But, despite the independence that literacy fosters, it’s communal storytelling that captivates and feeds connection. The sound of a parent’s—or a caring adult’s voice to a child—is proven to develop relationship and language skills. When a child is read to, the one reading must be close enough to hear. Kids are often on the lap of a parent, or in a group setting, close together, huddled around the reader. The feeling of connection and unity of hearing a story is enhanced by the facial and body language cues the reader gives to their listeners. Feeling accepted and part of a group is crucial to all people, but especially young children.
I suspect preteens to young adults read more than any other age group because it’s the time in their lives where they are looking for independence. It’s when children branch out from family expectations; their time of self-discovery, anticipation, and adventure. Does reading a book capture what it feels like to be young? Like a solo journey to an unexpected or unexplored world, literacy provides the opportunity to explore voices, ideas, and characters that may not exist in the tactile reality of the reader’s life. Do young people read the most because there is both a thrill of the unknown and a safety of uncovering life’s mysteries through the written word? It’s a way to experience lust and heartbreak, violence and horror, fantasy and history, death and life independently with no money or permission—only time and imagination.
Do I read less now and enjoy more visual story telling because I love reading less than I did before? No, that seems like an easy answer that doesn’t explain the whole picture. To go from one hundred books a year to ten seems as if my priorities have changed, and I suppose they have. I choose mostly non-fiction now, and rip through many essays online a day, but to settle with a book—to really get deep into it—I need uninterrupted solo time. And, this either doesn’t exist, or I don’t want it.
At the end of the day after sport activities, grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning, and reading the kids to sleep, I’m ready to unwind. Where I used to find solace in the solitary quest of a literary journey, I’m now seeking connection through being with others. It’s an instant community when you flip on your flatscreen and people come alive in front of you. Visually through TV and movies, we follow these people as if we are standing beside them or looking through their eyes. As philosopher Noel Carroll says, film has a “phenomenological address,” that appeals to and shapes a viewer’s experience. A film’s phenomenological address makes “us feel like we’re there.” The visual stimulation of film creates kinesthesia, we feel what we see happen to the character we’re connected to, most likely the protagonist. In scenes of action, suspense, tenderness, and lust my physical body reacts more viscerally than reading text ever could. This passive yet connected experience can be nearly instantaneous, especially with a series cast of familiar characters. Film, through TV and movies, has dominated our culture because it stimulates how our brains are wired; visual and auditory expressions of experience trigger flight, fight, and freeze responses. We comprehend language better when we can see lips moving and accompanying body language. Studies have shown that is even the case with animated, non-realistic characters. This is because, according to the journal Science, watching film lights up the fusiform face area of our brains—where we identify faces, colors, and word recognition. Watching requires less skill than reading, but offers more varied stimulation, what we’re highly adapted for. So, the “death” of reading may be one of the alarmist media’s favorite topics, but we’ve generally only been reading for a few hundred years. I’m not arguing we should give up on it—far from it—but I can see why home theaters have replaced home libraries.
I’m left wondering what the ten books I chose to follow through and read actually mean to me. When I started a book when I was younger, I would finish it even if I wasn’t particularly invested in it. Now I quit if the story isn’t working for me. My time to read is limited—it takes me a week to a month to finish a book now—whereas I would finish one in a day or two before. A month to spend on something you’re not enjoying feels too much like a shitty job than a pleasurable pastime. Also, I can’t seem to recall the thousand plus books I’ve read in my lifetime without a visual prompt to remember I’ve been in that world before. Sometimes I’ll even start a book and it’s not for a couple of chapters until I realize something is very familiar. Being an insatiable reader didn’t mean I savored each story, or a guarantee I’d even remember basic plot lines. Sorry nameless authors, it must have been me, not you!
While my twenties were a time for great change, my thirties are more stable and self-assured. I’m no longer wondering who I’m going to be—I know who I am. And I know what I like to read. Of the ten books I read this year I can remember them as if the narratives are my own memoir. I made time and space in my life for Catch-22, an amusing and scathing classic I am so grateful I waited until now to experience. I read The Master and Margarita, a bizarre Russian satire that is one of the greatest novels ever written, in my opinion. Angela’s Ashes, a salacious poverty epic, and As Nature Made Him, a tragic biography of David Reimer who was raised as a gender experiment; both were gut-wrenching accounts. Now I’m halfway through the tome which is The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It’s very interesting given the current global political climate, and I imagine the alt-right movement has read it as a how-to guide given its attentive specifics. In the armful of books I’ve read this year, they are all varied and provided me what I’ve needed at the time of experiencing them. I’m not reading as if I’m at the all you can eat buffet, I’m now at the multi-course Michelin star dining room and reveling on each rich page.
I can’t explain why many seniors aren’t reading even a single book in a year, but I can imagine they are content with the experiences they have so far acquired and aren’t looking to explore the fantasy of fiction. Maybe after a life time of news cycles, war, climate catastrophe, and technological wonders they are done with non-fiction accounts as well? Perhaps they instead seek the connection that visual storytelling provides more so than younger people. As life changes with experience, of course our satisfaction in leisure activities will morph. I know that although I am reading less than I ever have in my life, I am getting more from the literary works I choose to spend my time with. My time means more to me now, and I give it less freely. I will always be a reader, and hope I make time for reading more as I age instead of not cracking a book open at all. But, as I set up a new home again for my family, I feel no guilt in the packing and unpacking of this bookcase with neglected stories. I’ll get to those paperbacks when I’m hungry for them, because right now I’m sustained as it is.
Laura Stephenson is a fourth-year writing and philosophy major at the University of Victoria. Her focus is on poetry and writing on pop-culture and how these expressions of humanity are changing as technology rapidly re-frames possibilities.