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In the opening pages of Gone Girl the narrator, a writer, retells the dispiriting reason for moving out of New York. The market for words disappeared. The cause is put to several things although the distractions of technology and immediate high of gigabit delivered images rates strongly. The result is that no one wants to read sentences, not in sufficient numbers to make a living.

That fictional world was brought to reality with the release of Pew Research’s findings on reading habits. The analysis showed that nearly 25% of Americans hadn’t opened anything with print, not a paperback, not a Kindle, not anything with words, for a year. Figures for other countries wouldn’t be too far off, either. The number of non book readers has tripled in 35 years. A month ago I saw figure of similar proportions for Italy where the stat showed that a significant proportion of households didn’t have books at all. I can’t find the stats on the Radio24 website to corroborate my memory so, just take my word for it, for now anyway.

These surveys seem to have discounted audio books. I would put listening to an audio book on the same level as reading. Obviously reading and listening are different activities but understanding the material is still the same. Taking different qualities from a work is possible through the ears that may not be as overt via the eyes, especially the cadence of the prose.

That distinction may not be very important as the general trend seems to be that reading is declining. That is very concerning, and not just out of self-interest for writers who want to sell books and articles to a ready market.

When learning Italian I recall my teacher telling me that Italy had had a smaller literary culture, compared to Britain and France, because literacy was very low for so long. As a consequence newspapers did not have high readership, and they did not reach all parts of the population. Literacy is like an index of a nation’s prosperity, it measures how far the education system and country have progressed to ensure that people can read. Perhaps the habit of reading should be too.

We are told that we live in an information age and means working and processing with ideas, concepts, and arguments. Proficiency in reading is fundamental to do any of those tasks. If the skills dwindle the nation is less able, in a wider sense, to function. That is almost the Italian situation of a century ago, where only the elite had access and were stimulated by the ideas in books.

It is not surprising that low reading rates adversely affect the poorest most, yet it is the one thing – apart from being really excellent at sports, or entering the entertainment industry which are very easy to accomplish – that helps moves people out of poverty. The social mobility that occurred in the wake World War II allowed people to realize their potential. It was based on education, and at its core were the essential capabilities, such as reading. It is a waste of human potential if a quarter of a population’s only reading comprises ads and texts on phones.

Guy Cranswick
27th January 2014