Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

the age of reading

In January of 2008 Steve Jobs, the head of Apple Computer, was interviewed by reporters from the New York Times, and while Jobs was primarily interested in celebrating Apple’s newest products, he was willing to announce his views on other matters as well. For instance, on the Kindle: “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

There’s a lot to pick apart in Jobs’s statement. One could point out that if sixty percent of Americans read more than one book per year — many of them reading dozens — that’s an enormous potential market for the Kindle and for the book business in general. Or one could point out that America is not the only country in the world. Or one could point out that a Harris poll conducted two months after Jobs made that comment shows slightly better news: that only 31% of Americans polled read three or fewer books per year, while 37% read more than ten.

But just as a thought experiment, let’s grant Jobs’s point — and extend it. What if it were the case that only five percent of Americans read more than a book a year? Would it then be true that “people don’t read anymore”? I contend that there have never been a people who read more than Americans in our time. In additions to magazines and newspapers, in print or online, they read blogs. They read text messages on their cellphones. They read advertisements on billboards, storefronts, and the sides of buses. They even read while they’re watching TV: think about the crawlers on cable news shows, or the statistics that can virtually surround the images of baseball or football games. (Anyone who looks at old ball games on ESPN Classic will be struck by how empty the screen is of anything but the image itself.)

And what if we wish to become somewhat less literal in our definition of reading? Football quarterbacks — even the old-timers we see on ESPN Classic — read defenses. Radiologists read x-rays. Experts in “non-verbal communication” read facial expressions and body language and tell us that we do too — and can read them even better if we buy the experts’ books. Film critics read the narrative arcs of movies; art historians read the iconography of old paintings; businessmen read pie charts; mathematicians read the dots plotted via Cartesian coordinates.

We live in the Age of Reading. And yes, I know, there’s reading and then there’s reading. But still, that there is a kind of reading that we all do is a fact worth reckoning with. In future posts I’ll be reckoning with it.

UPDATE: Looks like CNN has eliminated the crawl, or one of them, anyway.