The Fine Print On Reading In America

pexels-photo-247899.jpeg

Something every college professor or boss should know by now is that if you put a reading online with accompanying questions, nobody is going to read the document to find the answers. Everybody who is even remotely computer-literate knows the cheat code of Control + F, a.k.a the find function. A little search bar pops up, you put in any keyword or phrase, and you are told where and how many times the word or phrase is used in the document. Answers found, end of story. But this system of slacking is not simply confined to college students. I even find myself using it while reading news stories or other documents. I’m looking for one specific thing, the browser finds it for me, and I’m done. This is emblematic of a larger epidemic of skimming that is raging across the world of those who do still read. And it’s devastating to not only the journalism community as a whole, but also to the intellectual and mental health of America.

According to a 2015 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 28 percent of Americans did not read even part of a book in 2014. However a positive takeaway from this survey is that millennials (18-29 in the survey) are the most likely out of any of the other age groups to have read a book in the past year with 80 percent (however the study did not appear to make a distinction between reading for school/work and reading for pleasure.) Nevertheless, this clearly is not just about the lazy college student who does not feel like reading an entire article, this is about America as a whole. Reading as an institution has been cast aside in recent decades in favor of more engaging forms of entertainment such as TV, which reigns supreme in the fight for America's attention, and video games. However studies show that by not reading, one is actually doing damage to his or her mental health.

A study conducted at the University of Sussex showed that reading books, fiction in particular, had medicinal properties of lowering stress and anxiety. Subjects who read for a mere six minutes showed slower heart rates, relaxed muscles and reduced levels of stress. This is because it forces the brain to focus on a single task of conceptualizing what is being read and according to the study’s conductor Dr. David Lewis, reading is “an active engaging of the imagination as the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.” Furthermore reading, and what you are reading, also has a profound effect on a person’s emotional maturity. A study published in 2013 by The New School in New York City found that when subjects read literary fiction — fiction regarded as having literary merit as opposed to genre-fiction — they were better able to empathize with, infer and understand the thoughts and emotions of other people compared to those who read nothing or genre-fiction. So it not only matters if you read, but what you read.

If you are reading this in the first place, that is a good sign. The truth is that reading and writing are not going anywhere — despite how quickly society is moving. Whether it be a news article on your phone, the caption beneath a photo, or even the rhetorical commands of a billboard, words are everywhere. But what it comes down to is our own decision whether or not to engage them. Will you read the newest best seller, or simply wait for the film adaptation to eventually come out and have the rich, textured plot boiled down into a digestible 90 minutes?

From 1982 to 2015, studies from the National Endowment for the Arts have shown that literary reading has seen a steady decline from 56.9 percent of adults reading at least one piece of literature (novels, plays, poems, short stories) in 1982 to 43.1 percent in 2015. This was a time when TV was already well established and gaining channels and video games were also becoming increasingly common (Pong had been out for 10 years). This is a problem that has been present in society for decades, but if millennials are the generation that will finally change gun laws and send humans to Mars, we can be the generation to revive recreational reading.

The constant connectivity to work and school can be pegged as a likely culprit. Correlations are shown between whether or not a person reads recreationally and his or her level of education. And since the number of people with bachelor’s degrees has risen significantly in the past few decades, it would stand to reason that the rate of readers would raise with it. But this is not the case. Despite higher levels of educated adults, the amount of readers has still been in steady decline since the 1980s. One possible explanation is how permanently tethered those educated people are to their jobs. It used to be that at 5 p.m. you would leave work and go home to relax and possibly pick up a good book for the evening. But now with the round-the-clock availability made possible by cell phones, emails, group chats, etc. that free time has lost its freedom. Simultaneously, those with lower education levels doing more menial tasks, who don’t have to answer work emails about mopping up floors, are far less likely to read in their free time which is truly theirs.

So what is the solution? Quit your job? Wash dishes for a living so that you can go home and read books at the end of the day? The simple answer is to make time for the things you love, like any hobby. When you see somebody really good at an instrument or a sport it’s not because they were simply born with extraordinary ability or were just lucky. They took the time, after work or school, to go and do the thing that makes them happy and gives substance to their lives outside the nine-to-five. It is the same case with reading, right down to the fact that reading has a direct impact on one’s health. This is another issue that just boils down to putting in the effort. And if you’re not sure where to start in your reading experience, there’s no more poignant novel relating to this issue than Ray Bradbury’s "Fahrenheit 451." Yes I’m sure you had to read it in high school, but if you are a millennial odds are pretty decent you used Sparknotes for at least part of the book. If I haven’t convinced you to read, perhaps Bradbury himself can:

“There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”