Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Old and new technologies

According to the American Bookseller’s Association and the Associated Press, one in four Americans surveyed had not read a book in the previous year. I have not seen comparisons for Australia, so I wonder if the statistics would be similar. In the American survey, more than half of those who had read a book had read more than six books and a quarter of the readers had read more than fifteen books. The Midwest had the highest percentage of readers, but southern readers read the highest per capita number of books with 31% reading more than fifteen books.

Spokesperson for the survey, Michael Gross of Ipsos Public Affairs, claimed to be surprised that in a country that likes to think of itself as “intelligent and well-read”, a quarter of those surveyed did not read books. He stressed that no conclusions could be drawn about American’s reading habits as the survey asked specifically about books.

At an anecdotal level, when I taught a media and popular culture class in Minnesota, bastion of the apparently well-read Midwest, in early 2000, only a handful of a class of 150 put their hands up to say that they regularly read a newspaper or a magazine. A majority of the class did not listen to radio news or watch network news on television. And this was in a class that was full of journalism majors. Is this evidence of the triumph of the web, or can we in fact draw tentative conclusions about the reading habits of Americans?

Some people argue that those people not reading books are turning instead to the internet. I have not seen statistics for this, but I suspect that if people are using the internet, it is largely not for reading purposes. They definitely are not reading blogs. Again, in the United States, only 39 per cent of internet users (about 57 million) read blogs.

I was encouraged to find an argument in support of reading and blogging. Genevieve Tucker writes for The Australian that “readers of books who also enjoy reading blogs are conscious that they are drawn to the most highly powered technology in their homes and offices to talk about the simplest cultural technology there is, one that can be picked up, kept for many years on a shelf, borrowed and lent and returned to at will without needing to be refreshed or substantially remodelled. It is this poignant attachment to old technology, together with a well-balanced sense of the rich possibilities offered by new media, that is probably closest to the heart of blogging about books and writing.”

I certainly have an attachment to the grand old technology of the book. I read at least one book a week, more if I can squeeze it in. Then there are the newspapers and magazines that loiter in piles around the house. And I love the way that you can access fresh writing using the internet. Now if I can just manage not to let blogging get in the way of writing my book, then I will feel that I have the right balance between old and new technologies.

1 comment:

Kate said...

Hi, Jenny,
A particularly interesting post, this one. Of course, all your posts are elegant!

My sense, as an American, is that 25% of the population isn't reading books, nor are they reading blogs. They aren't reading, period. I believe that functional illiteracy in the US is around 20 or 25%! It's buried in that link I provided, but the National Adult Literacy Survey in 1992 estimated that 21-23% of those tested had reading level skills in "level 1"--which they describe as ""able to total an entry on a deposit slip, locate the time and place of a meeting on a form, and identify a piece of specific information in a brief news article. Others were unable to perform these types of tasks, and some had such limited skills that they were unable to respond to much of the survey." By the same token, I would guess that those that read 15 books or more a year are also those that use the internet most heavily. Readers are readers.

There has been a new national literacy survey in 2003, but no one can trust government statistics issued under the Bush government, alas, now that he has made us into a banana republic. I also think that getting TV news in the US is not a sign of being well-informed in this period.

It is a very startling thing to realize how ignorant the US population is. I just heard today that a third of Americans STILL think Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11! And, of course, 57% or so don't "believe" in evolution. One study I read estimated that 35% of Americans could be considered "know-nothings" because they knew nothing about American government--not the name of the Vice President, not the names of the senators, not the party that controlled congress. The most powerful country in the world, and we don't know how to read or reason.