Endangered Species? Reading in the Digital Age

Business executive riding subway train, New York City, USA

Reading, particularly literature, has long been relegated to the bottom of our pastime activity list. Faced with a social media overload and changing social paradigms, millennials have developed habits of instant gratification and divided attention that are diametrically opposed to enjoying literature. This article traces their rise and observes that while reading’s decline is only an effect of the digital paradigm shift, reintegration efforts are low.

In 1953, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451, a novel outlining a world without books. Thankfully we are still far from that scenario, but while Bradbury envisioned books perishing as a result of sociopolitical tensions, the reality today is a sheer lack of interest: in the United States, more than half the population no longer reads literature. A 2015 report by the National Endowment for the Arts found that only 43% of adults engaged in reading outside work or education, a steady, continuous decline from 57% in 1982. Children fare even worse: a significant number are not even taking literature courses at school. Already by 2001, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa—who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature—was epitomizing this trend in a powerful piece entitled “the premature obituary of the book.” Yet we should be careful when interpreting such statistics. Reading’s decline is not a result of conscious opposition, but rather an unconscious by-product of changing habits and social influences. On a personal note, I had not been aware of it until my high school English teacher handed me a clipping from Llosa’ aforementioned article. Then the school library discarded half its books and reduced its efforts to promote an annual inter-school reading competition. Considering the reasons given by Llosa—lack of time, chiefly—and my school’s unrelenting emphasis on digital engagement as opposed to books, reading’s downfall seems to be generational, not intrinsic. What about millennials, then, is causing it?

The Internet’s advent was swiftly followed by a social media explosion, three aspects of which are key in understanding reading’s decline: an ever-lowering attention span, new social paradigms and, recently, the ‘video revolution’. To begin with, it is by now a truism that millennials are continually distracted. While a famous Microsoft study claiming an attention span drop from 12 seconds in 2000 to only 8 seconds (less than a goldfish) is in fact unsubstantiated, belief in something is just as important as the truth, because it conditions the believer’s subsequent judgements. Hence the—slightly amusing—announcement that sports associations like the NBA are willing to shorten their games to accommodate lower attention spans. The relationship with reading, especially literature, is evident: short attention spans derive from multitasking and information overload, which fosters an expectation for instant gratification. A good book takes its readers on a lengthy and complex journey, inherently preserving an element of patience that has since been eliminated from calling cabs (Uber), movie downloads (Netflix) and dating (Tinder). Even where reading is necessary, such as humanities university degrees, intense focus is placed not on reading but skimming, and that is not merely a student problem but also an assumption on which professors seem to operate, given unrealistic amounts of reading assignments and open encouragement of skimming.

The immense psychological power of habits doesn’t need a defence here: armed with skimming, multitasking and the expectation of finding Google answers in seconds, millennials turn to books for pleasure and find that they’re jumping around and unable to concentrate, eventually losing interest. Even more powerful, however, is the overarching social paradigm within which the individual operates, comprising—but not limited to—peer pressure. As a Pearson poll revealed that by the age of 11 almost half of surveyed children do not read for pleasure, the reasons given by two-thirds of teachers was that reading simply wasn’t seen as “cool” and an overwhelming 94% preferred the Internet to a book. Once again, the mere existence of the Internet frames this as a generational problem. As a comparison, I had little contact with the Internet before turning 13, but was the proud owner of two bookshelves in my room. Yet like the NBA announcement, instead of challenging the current paradigm and reintegrating reading within it, we find appeasement efforts to the status quo, deviating even further from literature. Thus, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom singled out the projected $17 billion market for digital video as social media’s next frontier, and geared his app accordingly. The move from words to pictures to video isn’t necessarily antithetical to cultivating reading: for example, Hollywood book adaptations are enjoying a strong boost, which in turn offers a way to promote reading and hold children’s attention longer. But such attempts only treat symptoms and not the root, concentrating on a few contemporary and exceptionally successful books. With everyone in our peer group focused on 60-second videos, 140-character Tweets and ‘cool’ time-saving apps, it becomes somewhat expected that fewer than 1 in 100 schoolchildren based their GCSE English Literature exam responses on books published before 1900.

I like to believe that an argument for why literature should continue being a part of our lives isn’t necessary—Llosa’ exposition of the cultural, emotional and intellectual benefits derived from reading suffices for anyone in need of convincing—but it is necessary to understand how such a decline has come about, and what it means for our own unconscious habits and behaviors. Neither reading nor literature is dead: books still sell, either in print or digital formats, and bestselling authors have loyal fandoms just like Instagram celebrities. Yet in an age of fast-paced entertainment and instant information access, too few of us are taking the plunge into a literary universe anymore.