Normally, when good news about the fate of books and literature comes down the line, I tend to look at it a little skeptically. After all, the prevailing wisdom is that soon enough, in a digital age of 24/7 Internet connectivity and our resultant shrinking attention spans, something so quaint as a book can’t compete with a chance to be Kim Kardashian’s virtual friend by playing “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” on your iPhone. (I kid you not; this is a real thing.)
And yet, just last week I noted an unalloyed good sign: the steady increase in the number of independent bookstores.
This week I have what I believe to be more surprising, and perhaps even better, news: According to the Pew Research Center, young people are reading more books than old people.
“Young” in this particular case means anyone younger than 30, which sounds young to me these days, so let’s go with it.
According to the survey, 88 percent of Americans younger than 30 have read a book in the last year, versus 79 percent for those older than 30. A full 67 percent of those younger than 30 report reading a book in the last week, with 43 percent saying that they read “every day or almost every day.”
Contrast this with the over-30 crowd, where only 58 percent report reading at least once a week, and we see a pretty clear trend indicating that digital gewgaws haven’t sapped young peoples’ abilities to enjoy a good, old-fashioned book.
One reason young people are reading more is embedded in the survey’s methodology, in that reading for school-related reasons is included as part of the data. The periodic surveys of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) that show lower levels of reading for younger age cohorts exclude reading as part of school in their tallies. Given the relentless—and in this college instructor’s opinion, counterproductive—pace of academic work students contend with in school, it’s not surprising that they may not have weekly or even monthly time for pleasure reading, thus excluding them from the NEA data.
That said, comparing those younger than 17 in the survey to those older than 25, we see largely similar rates of reading, the only possible notable difference being that the younger cohort are slightly more likely to read every day or almost every day.
This suggests that children are still picking up the habit of reading, and managing to maintain it through their young adulthoods.
I have to believe that some of this is due to the increasingly vibrant scene surrounding young adult literature. The Harry Potter series looks to be an enduring classic. Today’s 16-year-old was not yet born at the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but it’s hard to find many who haven’t read it.
We also have contemporary realist writers like John Green, E. Lockhart and Rainbow Rowell who are publishing books that speak to the needs and desires of these young (and not-so-young) readers.
However, in the end, the reason that books and reading appear to be enduring is because even with smartphones seemingly surgically attached to our bodies, we remain fundamentally human, and reading great books is one of the ways we get to practice our humanity. As different as a generation of “digital natives” may seem, they have the same hopes and dreams as anyone else.
Maybe, just maybe, books aren’t something that technology can “disrupt” because our thirst for them is inextricably tied to who we are. Me? I’m going to try to stop worrying about books disappearing someday. As an official old person, I know they’ll outlast me.
John Warner / The Chicago Tribune