Here’s a newsflash for you: reading for pleasure is dead. We first heard about this, officially, a couple of years ago, when the NEA released its Reading at Risk survey, which concluded that 57% of Americans hadn’t read a book in a year. (Call me cynical, but I have to point out that that’s merely the 57% who admitted it; I suspect that, as with salary and sex surveys, one needs to factor in a certain amount of would-that-it-were-true response bias.) In 2005, a Gallup Poll concluded that the average American reads only five books a year.
Then, last week, an AP-Ipsos poll revealed that 27% of the 1,000 or so people its researchers questioned admitted they hadn’t read a single book in the past year. (The median number of books read by the remainder was nine for women and five for men, which struck me as hopeful, or, alas, inflationary.)
However you slice it, though, this is neither good, nor news—at least not to those of us in the book business whose livelihoods depend on people reading at least some of what we publish.
Maybe the “average” citizen doesn’t pack for a week’s vacation the way we industry types do: as I zip my bag for a 10-day trip, I count seven volumes—Sebastian Faulks’s Engleby; Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank; and a Chinese mystery among them—but there are plenty of folks who do. (One respondent in the survey said she read 70 books last year.) Besides, lately I’ve noted plenty of nonindustry types plowing through good old-fashioned bound books (the airport at Martha’s Vineyard was littered one weekend with stressed-out, flight-delayed adults turning the pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) and some (okay, one) peering at a Sony Reader.
But what are most people reading? According to the poll, and to our common wisdom, women tend to favor novels, while more men go in for biography and history.
“Fiction just doesn’t interest me,” one 41-year-old construction worker told CNN. “If I’m going to get a story, I’ll get a movie,” he said, articulating an attitude surely shared by many others in our media-saturated world. But it’s enough to make editors, especially fiction editors, choke on their Cobb salads.
So, what to make of the news that the New Yorker Festival, coming in October, has become so popular with “regular folk” that its organizers have decided not to make all the tickets available to readers of the magazine in advance; for the first time, the festival will hold back 10% of the seats to all events so that visitors can buy them on the fly on October 5, the day the festival begins. And this for a program that is literary by anybody’s lights: Norman Mailer, Martin Amis, Miranda July and Orhan Pamuk are among the participants. So is Steve Martin, whose memoir, Born Standing Up, will appear later in the fall. And, yes, in a nod to so-called popular culture, there will also be an appearance by David Byrne; a panel on graphic superheroes (featuring fan Jonathan Lethem); and a screening of The Kite Runner, based on the Riverhead blockbuster.
Who will be there? As always, the New Yorker expects sellout crowds—100% of whom, I’d wager, would declare themselves readers, whatever the polls might say.
Sara Nelson (and her column) will be on vacation next week.
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