Reading, some educators and social scientists are beginning to fear, is becoming a lost pastime. That might be a bit of an overstatement. Most Americans, of course, know how to read, but increasing numbers choose not to do so as a form of recreation. If that trend continues -- and there's every indication it could do so -- it could have considerable civic, social and even economic implications for the nation.
Consider this: Most recent surveys agree that about a quarter of American adults had not read a book in the last year. Of those surveyed who did read a book, the mean was 6.5 books a year, though the number varies considerably by region, race, sex, political preference and economic status. Still, the overall portrait strongly suggests that regular reading, once a major component of life in the United States, is in decline.
It is especially noticeable, experts say, among teens and young adults. Only about a third of 13-year-olds spend leisure time reading nowadays. That represents a double digit decline in less than a generation. In the same period, the number of 17-year-olds classified as non-readers doubled. It's hardly a surprise, then, that average reading scores continue to decline.
There are some bright spots in the nation's reading habits. There are indications that reading for fun is regaining popularity among students in the primary grades. Also, the number of people who claim membership in book or reading clubs or who listen to rather than read books is growing.
Still, the contemporary lifestyle obviously has a direct and negative effect on the number of recreational readers. For example, the average American between ages 15 and 24 spends two hours or more a day watching TV and additional time on the Internet or using other media. By contrast, the same age group spends less than 10 minutes daily on leisure-time reading. Social scientists, educators and futurists might debate what recent changes mean, but it seems obvious that societal shifts are responsible for the changes in reading patterns.
Much of the decline is directly related to the increasing availability of other sources of entertainment and information. Economic pressures and family demands cut into time once available for reading, too. Whatever the reasons for the decline, the rise in the number of those who turn elsewhere for entertainment or information is unsettling.
Many cities -- including Chattanooga and some surrounding communities -- have taken positive steps to slow or reverse the decline. Public programs outside the purview of schools, underwritten with a mix of taxpayer and private funds, have been established to provide books to youngsters. There's ample evidence to suggest that giving books to youngsters and encouraging them to read can create a lifelong love affair with books and with reading. Those efforts deserve continued and generous support.
It's probably too early to declare recreational reading a dead or dying pastime. Indeed, devices like the Kindle and the iPad are building a new audience for books and other printed material. That might not be traditional, but it is a trend that nevertheless is welcome in a nation where books and reading have long been synonymous with an educated and informed citizenry.