The Death of Reading: Why Do So Few Americans Read Books?

Books are a dying art.

In a recent clip from beloved late-night talk show “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” the host sent his staff out on the street to ask random Angelenos to name a book. Just one book … out of billions. Their responses? “I don’t read books.” The last book most of them had read? Something by Dr. Seuss.

The average American adult will read 12 books each year, and a quarter of American adults will not read “a book in any format,” according to the Pew Research study which inspired the Kimmel segment. It should be noted that this study revealed that the typical American will only read four books per year. Though that percentage has remained steady since about 2012, it’s still less than numbers reported from 2011. Though the number of readers is holding steady, the fact that one in four Americans opts away from reading paperback books is a tad terrifying.

Books are more than just longform prose and fodder for movie adaptations; at their best, novels and nonfiction are important tools for self-actualization and societal growth. When we read books, we immerse ourselves for a short time into a world that’s not our own. While reading, we have the opportunity learn more about who we are, what we believe and how the world works. This is not only incredible; it’s invaluable.

For Arizona State University creative writing professor Patricia Colleen Murphy, author of the award-winning poetry collection “Hemming Flames,” books are not only a stress relief — Sussex University researchers revealed that reading can reduce stress by as much as 68 percent — they’re a gateway to knowledge.

“Reading helps me understand complex concepts,” she explains. “[Books] teach empathy, compassion and understanding. They make me laugh and make me feel smart. They teach me about situations I never dreamed were possible. Without them, we don’t get to know ourselves.”

For that reason, Murphy founded the Superstition Review, an online literary magazine, in 2008. She wanted a chance to promote contemporary literature and provide “a free, easy-to-navigate, one-stop shop for art, fiction, interviews, nonfiction and poetry.” Murphy believes that it’s these modern artists who have the power to shape and control “the future of America’s literary landscape.”

Many Americans don’t know what they’re missing by not reading. They ignore findings such as those outlined by UC Berkeley researchers, who found that reading early in life exposes kids to 50 percent more words than TV, which leads to higher scores on intelligence tests and could mean higher intelligence later in life. In addition, a study published in Neurology revealed that frequent brain exercise (such as reading) improves memory function and can decrease mental decline by 32 percent. That’s not to mention the empathetic impact of reading — a recent study published in Science revealed that reading literary fiction has the power to help readers understand what others are thinking, a crucial skill for relating to others and expressing empathy.

“There are so many fine books right now about immigration, race relations, history, gender politics and the changing face of our nation,” she notes. And yet, too few people are paying attention. They’re missing books such as “Behold the Dreamers” by Imbolo Mbue, which is “so relevant to the current immigration and border crisis that it seems like the author could be a fortune teller,” she remarks.

The Death of Reading: Why Do So Few Americans Read Books?

Shortened attention spans present another hurdle. “In my experience as an editor, people are growing impatient with stories that take too long to develop,” states Murphy. “We want headlines and tweets and images and tags.” Solely reading news stories can actually decrease empathy, however, according to a 2013 study in the American Psychological Association’s journal. It’s not just the story being told — it’s how the story is told that’s important.

In the war between technology and art, technology is winning out. What can we do to reignite a love for the art of the book? Seventy five percent of parents wish their children would read more for fun, and the issue goes back to how we’re taught about books as children. A love of reading has to start in the home, and from there, in school.

“From talking with college students, I’ve heard that sometimes high school English curricula highlights texts that aren’t particularly relevant,” reveals Murphy. “It’s a shame because there are so many amazing contemporary American authors writing about real problems that students experience. If our schools started forming relationships with these authors and inviting them in to speak, and teaching their wonderfully relevant and important books, I do believe we would have more lifetime readers.”

The good news is that reading is contagious. A new report from Scholastic suggests that reading out loud to kids throughout elementary school may inspire them to become frequent readers — kids who read five to seven days per week for fun.

Books nourish the soul. As a society, we have to resist the way we’ve trained our brains to only read a paragraph or two, and teach ourselves to set aside at least an hour a day for deliberate reading. Not only will reading make us better people; it will keep us from becoming a nation without compassion, empathy or original thought.

To Read Right Now:

Feeling inspired? Here are five page-turning novels we recommend to get you back into the habit of reading.

  • “Behold the Dreamers” by Imbolo Mbue touches on topics of marriage, immigration, class, race and the American Dream.
  • “An American Marriage”by Tayari Jones is a beautiful love story that asks deep questions about race, class and what it means to be an American.
  • “The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women” by Kate Moore shines a spotlight on the inspiring young women who worked with radium during the First World War.
  • “The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row” by Anthony Ray Hinton is the powerful story of a man who spent 28 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit.
  • “Hemming Flames” by Patricia Colleen Murphy is a haunting collection of poetry about familial mental illness, addiction and grief.
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