Monday, June 1, 2009

Scary Stats Support Scary Theories

by Ben Small

So I was sitting around wondering what to blog about today. I'm not in a good mood, so decided against something funny, and I'm feeling lazy, so I didn't want to work at being too creative. Long Weekend Syndrome. The Monday Blues.

And then I picked up the May edition of independent, the monthly of the Independent Publishers Association ("IDPA"). The lead article, "Diagnosis - Big Trouble: The Case For a Reader Creation and Development Board."

And I lost my appetite.

We're all aware that publishing is in trouble. Traditional channels are cutting back and closing; comic books are competing with our beloved thrillers and mysteries. The internet looks promising, as traditional publishing declines, but nobody's sure exactly how or when the internet will fill the gaps or take the lead. In the meantime, we're all blogging like banshees and attempting to cover all internet bases or opportunities.

But this article by David P. Leach focuses on a much more serious problem for all writers, not just mystery/thriller writers. Readers are dropping like flies.

The article provides statistics that are just plain scary:

- 42% of American adults can't read above eighth grade level;

- 1/3 of foreign born adults in the U.S. and 44% of Hispanic Americans, do not have a high school diploma;

- One in three young adults drops out of a U.S. high school every year.

- A 2007 Associated Press/Ipsos Public Affairs study found that 42% of Americans said they read five or fewer books per year, and more than half of this number read no books per year, and

- For the first time in history, America is graduating high school students less educated than their parents.

The article makes the point that these statistics show the problem facing authors is not so much how to get published and in what format, but rather, who's going to read the books? There's an overall decline in readers.

I'm not so worried about graphic novels. I read comic books when I was young. My parents had the view that comic books were reading, and reading, whatever form it took, was good. And of course, I graduated from comic books to bound books in due course. And while the comic books today are larger and have more plot, graphics and content, I think the paradigm still holds true, even if it might be delayed a bit.

But there is serious competition out there. Among those who don't read, you can expect to find serious television and video game addicts, who spend their time in front of a screen.

So what's the solution?

I don't think there is an easy one, because the problem appears to be part of a larger decline we're seeing all over our culture. Parents taking less responsibility for their children and their upbringing; two job families not having time for their children; a break down in adult supervision and discipline of children; an invasion of ill-educated illegal immigrants; larger school class sizes; shorter school sessions and terms; grade inflation; less focus on reading and writing in schools; burned out teachers; a lack or role models, and the rise of the hip-hop, gangsta culture, where reading is not cool.

The IDPA recognizes that waiting for schools or the government to make changes that will affect these statistics is a waste of time. But I'm not sure what benefits their proposed publisher-backed Reader Creation and Development Board will bring about, either. What's needed is for families to recognize the importance of reading, to instill in their young the burning desire to be better than their parents - the goals most of our parents burned into our minds. Too many kids today seem to feel entitled; they're willing to settle for a lifestyle that gets by, instead of striving to be better, to rise to the top. And they're distracted, by their peers, by all the entertainment options available to them. Somewhere in this mass of choices, the notion that reading is not just another form of entertainment, but something more serious, has been lost in the mix.

Strikes me, the only approach that will work to increase readership across the board, is the community approach, the local level, instilling in parents and teachers the need to push children to read. Writers can help, by making appearances at schools, but much of the responsibility must rest with parents.

And that's why I'm pessimistic. I'm not sure Baby Boomers have passed on the values we were taught.

What do you think?


Chester Campbell said...

You may be right, Ben. I'm happy that my kids have passed along a love of reading to my grandkids. But it's the next gene3ration beyond them I'm concerned about. The 12-year-old who lives with us has absolutely balked at reading until recently. His problem is a lack of vocabulary. He doesn't understand what he reads, so he loses interest. We're working on that aspect now, if we can keep him off Facebook long enough.

Anonymous said...

I think distraction and entitlement have ruined a generation. I have a couple of young relatives living nearby. I love them dearly, but their parents never say no, and no computer game is too expensive for their tastes.

I'm afraid when this recession really hits they are in for a very rude shock.

Pat Browning