Who Reads, What Gender Reads, and Is the World Coming to an End?

We’ve had a few varying discussions about who reads – from who reads romance to who reads more fiction to who reads more in general and is reading going the way of the Dodo bird?

Add to the list of “The world is coming to an end and reading decline is the shifty canary!” articles: NPR’s report on why women read more than men. The article starts off talking about gender, moves into neurons, then ends with the now-habitual “reading habits are declining and we’re all going to die!” angsty handwringing.

The idea that women read more fiction: that’s fascinating. I’m not sure if it’s as easy as the article makes it seem to chalk the difference up to empathy and psychosexual differences, but it’s definitely true in the scientific sample of my household that I read more fiction than Hubby. Of course, I read more than Hubby. I have a commute on public transportation; he drives and listens to “yelly sports men” aka ESPN radio. I read romance all the damn time; he reads a mixture of biography, history, and some adventure fiction. Is my colloquial experience then proof of a gender divide? Meh. Who knows. I don’t now if it’s possible to ever accurately survey a population’s reading habits, because what you read – sorry, what you admit to reading – is such a marker of intelligence and class that an honest survey is practically impossible to create.

However, I am so weary of the “young people don’t read and we’re all going to DIE!” angsty handwringing. I don’t think reading is dying out, no matter what this, that or the other survey may say. Surely I can easily be labeled as Polly Anna optimistic about this issue, but I just don’t buy it. I think, if anything, the continued hybridization of genres will create renovated definitions of reading. Just look at the hybrids now: romance, videogames, and manga are merging into an entire line of fiction, and movies, books, and television shows are being made from and into graphic novels. I think the blurring lines between visual and written, digital and printed word will probably continue to blur, and existing definitions will have to be amended to make room for not only what people read but how they read.

Either way, I’m going to sit with a book. It’s readin’ time.

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  1. 1
    Chrissy says:

    It’s really too bad that young people don’t read because that poor Jo Rowling needs the cash.

    Where are these people getting their info?  I’m not sure why (or even if, considering the dubiousness of so many sources these days) women read more.  Certainly judging by my own peer group and family, the statistic SEEMS accurate. 

    But I think the article is on a slippery and rather circuitous slope.  Cripes, this is the golden age of children’s literature.  Adults are getting hooked on their kids’ books!

  2. 2
    Sarah Frantz says:

    It’s also the golden age of Young Adult lit.  There was never the huge selection of really fabulous YA out there when I was a YA.  I had to make do with Atlas Shrugged (I kid you not!), and if that’s not enough to turn one off reading, I don’t know what is.

    I think SB Sarah’s exactly right—it’s all what we read and how we read that’ changing, rather than if we read.  Reading surveys that I’ve taken in the past year or so that specifically try to figure out romance reading habits almost always skip e-books, and that’s most of my romance reading nowadays.  Even the really good surveys, like Bronwyn Clark’s, doesn’t seem to understand quite how much e-publishing is changing some readers’ reading habits.

  3. 3
  4. 4
    Liz C. says:

    but it’s definitely true in the scientific sample of my household that I read more fiction than Hubby.

    That was certainly true for my parents as well. My mom was the one with the 600 books from all genres and my dad had the National Geographics and the biographies.

    I wonder if all of these “oh my god no one reads anymore” people consider ebooks. I personally don’t prefer ebooks, but I’m old fashioned and as much as I love the internet I will always prefer a paper and ink book. That’s not to say younger generations will.

  5. 5
    karibelle says:

    I knew my upbringing was strange!  In my childhood home there was a lot of reading, but Mom read the newspaper, every night, every word, without fail.  She enjoyed a romance or mystery novel from time to time, but she rarely had time for books after she was caught up on current events.  Dad was the book reader.  He would read almost anything and usually got to Mom’s romance novels before she even cracked the cover.  My ex-husband was not a reader at all and I think that should have been a big indicator to me that we were not compatible.  I will definately know better next time!

    This conversation reminds me of a terrible first (and last) date I had with a guy when I was in college.  AFTER I informed him I was a Lit. major he said,“Yeah.  Reading’s good.  I read all the time.  I Like biographies and real history.  I never read fiction.  I mean, I’m a busy man.  I don’t have time for somebody else’s made-up shit.”  Then I realized that he had no soul and it was over before it even began.

  6. 6
    cecille says:

    Skimming the article, I wondered if there would be the same sort of puzzlement if it had turned out that more men read than women, and whether anyone would have bothered conducting scientific experiments on that, or would it simply have passed as ‘normal’?

    Personally I don’t buy into the explanation that women are geared by biology towards feeling empathy and hence read more, but would hazard the guess- and this would take years of research to prove or disprove- that reading as a pastime has become feminized and thereby devalued as something a male wouldn’t do. I know it’s a sweeping statement, but to me the question seems to be less one of who is biologically geared towards what, than whether reading fits into the image of hegemonic masculinity in certain western countries, where I’d -generalizingly- claim physical activity such as sports are valued higher than reading, and a sports trophy will get you more admiration and attention than a stack of books that you have read.

  7. 7
    Estelle Chauvelin says:

    The basic statistics sound comparable to what I hear in Readers Advisory programs.  Women read more.  Women tend to read more widely.  Men are more likely to focus intently on reading on highly specific topics that catch their interest.

  8. 8
    veinglory says:

    Substitute lead wine bottles with cell phones and it is the same old song.

  9. 9

    RfP had an interesting take on the same NPR article:
    http://www.readforpleasure.com/2007/09/why-women-read-more-than-men-or-not.html

    Thanks, skri.

    Srsly, I wrote NPR a perturbed letter about that article.  It cites a book that’s been discredited loud and clear and kind of hilariously.  (One big-name science journal calls it “psychoneuroindoctrinology”.)

    It also bugs that he doesn’t mention the theories that say differences in reading are at least partly socially instilled.  Sure, women’s brains are different from men’s… but that’s not a road to go down without also considering how alike they are, and how important socialization is.

    Oh, and his take on “Reading dying! Civilization crumbling!”… also a little fuzzy.

  10. 10
    iffygenia says:

    It’s really too bad that young people don’t read because that poor Jo Rowling needs the cash.

    That’s another place he was inaccurate.  Young people do read, and have always read.  The new phenomenon is that that doesn’t mean they’ll read as adults.  The current generations read less and less as they get older.

    Even the really good surveys… doesn’t seem to understand quite how much e-publishing is changing some readers’ reading habits.

    Most of the decline in reading is clearly separate from (started long before) the ebooks trend.

    The National Endowment for the Arts asks about other media.  In 2002, they found that 12% listened to books and 9% “read online”.  I’d hope they’ll add an explicit “ebooks” section to their next survey.

    Where are these people getting their info?

    There are tons of statistics on reading.  I’ve been looking at at the bigger studies.

    I was a skeptic until I started reading the statistics.  Now I’m perturbed, but not “ZOMGtheskyisfalling”.

  11. 11
    YorkshireLass says:

    My husband doesn’t read as much as I do and when he does, it is usually non-fiction.  This is not because he doesn’t like to read fiction but more that once he starts a fiction book it takes over his whole life.  He disappears into what he calls “book world”, so that even if he is not actively reading the book he is thinking about it, and doesn’t emerge again until he’s finished the book.  As a result of this he is often afraid to start a fiction book in case it interferes with his work or things he has to do at home.  Non-fiction is easier to dip in and out of and can be read on the train or in a spare half hour.  I seem to find it much easier to put a fiction book down when I need to do something else – although if it’s a really good book this becomes more difficult!

  12. 12
    Flo says:

    It’s the whole idea that young kids aren’t reading SPECIFIC “classics”.  That only THOSE books are legitimate literature and other books (ie: Harry Potter) are not legit.

    On the OTHER side of the coin it’s seriously disheartening to see teens reading something like Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake shagathon and learning grammar, spelling and punctuation from there.  (tries not to look at her own at 7am)

    Whether or not there is a decline in reading is hard to really get a handle on.

    Whether or not there is a decline in quality of book is a certainty.  If nothing it published that is good quality then why would someone read it?

  13. 13
    KCfla says:

    Obviously, those survey people have never been to my home *g*.

    I read books of all types (although romance is my favorite),and Hubby is a Sci-fi nut. And if my children get any more books, I’ll have to take out a loan to pay off the bills at B&N’s!

    Seriously though- I think it may be the “format” of what people read that has changed. I know my whole family reads a lot of stuff on-line ( blogs, news, entertainment, etc.)that would have been done in print form a few years ago. and I doubt that the studies take all of that into account.
    ( and if this doesn’t make sense- I blame the hour and lack of coffee!)

  14. 14
    SB Sarah says:

    As I was reading (ahem) all the comments, it occurred to me that I read All Day Long. I read books, I read email, I read webpages, I write and then read my own entries, I’m literally reading ALL the TIME. No wonder I need a stronger prescription for my eyeglasses every year. My eyes are getting a workout. If I exercised as much as I read, I’ve have killer thighs and six pack abs.

  15. 15
    Zippy says:

    Funny thing, reading. When I was a kid my dad read paperback pulp fiction and so did I. As soon as he was done, I’d pick it up. Hubby & I read alot now, but we have one kid that reads and one that could care less. But if the author of the article thinks young people don’t read, she should have done her survey the 2 weeks after the new Harry Potter came out. Everyone was reading it; little kids, adults, you name it. Every doctors waiting room had a couple people reading it. Amazing!

  16. 16
    Charis says:

    Word, SB Sarah.  In fact, having a book in front of me while I’m on the treadmill is the only way I am able to excersize regularly – otherwise I’m all, “OMG I’ve only been running for like three minutes, I’m dying, there’s no way I’m getting to the half hour mark!”

  17. 17
    Francois says:

    Text is just another form of media. To an extent, reading in itself is no more a positive thing than watching TV is. Its what people read…and I can understand academics finding it disturbing that the world has moved on and there is more choice now – not everyone wants to read the classics and not everyone has to now. Which leaves academics kinda high and dry in the conversational stakes unless they’ve been watching Heroes like everyone else.

  18. 18
    --E says:

    Within the publishing industry (specifically, within the giant NY conglomerate publishing houses), it’s common wisdom that women (in general) read more than men, and that men (in general) read mostly nonfiction.

    In-house at my company, the primary speculation for “why” is that men are more easily lured away to other entertainments, e.g. video games. (Which isn’t to say that women don’t play video games, but rather to say that men, as a general group, play them more and for longer segments of time, particularly in the crucial 18-35 demographic.)

    This is such a common belief in-house that even if it were not true to begin with, it’s well on the road of self-fulfilling prophecy.

  19. 19
    Liz C. says:

    not everyone wants to read the classics

    I personally never understood the appeal of so many of these classics. I read a lot, but I’m not going to read something that doesn’t interest me, that bores me, or that makes me want to throw the book at the wall. Unless it’s for a class and I have to. I’ll read some classics and love them (I am perhaps the only person in the entire world who read Hardy’s The Return of the Native and liked it), but you couldn’t pay me to finish Moby Dick.

    And I realize this is slightly OT but it always bothered me that for some people it doesn’t matter how much a person reads if they aren’t reading the “right” kind of books. People, mostly academics, harp on how people aren’t reading anymore when what I think they really mean is that people aren’t reading what THEY think you should be reading.

  20. 20
    HL Rouillard says:

    People have been chewing their nails to bits over the supposed demise of the book since the advent of radio.

    I’ll believe it when I see it; however, you’d never know it by the $200 or more a month I spend in book stores and on Amazon.com!

    H

  21. 21
    Lorelie says:

    it always bothered me that for some people it doesn’t matter how much a person reads if they aren’t reading the “right” kind of books.

    My step-mom was one of these when I was growing up.  I read all the freaking time but when I wanted the new Anne Rice, Robert Heinlein or Neil Stephenson I got lectured on the “quality” of my reading material.  Uh-huh.  You read the Shopaholic’s series and Dave Barry, woman – just try and tackle The Diamond Age.

    Anyway, more anecdotal evidence – my husband doesn’t hardly read and when he does it’s about a 50/50 split between fiction (ie Dan Brown) and those god-awful “I was a prisoner of war” stories.  Pretty similar with my friends’ husbands.

  22. 22
    Julie Leto says:

    I loved Moby Dick.  Read every word…well, that’s not exactly true.  I had the recorded book.  Unabridged.  It took like 35 tapes.  Yes, tapes.  It was a long time ago.  I had the book with me so I could underline and make notes in the margins.  But I still loved it.

    I say bull to “kids don’t read.”  My daughter’s 4th grade had 15 books on their summer reading list.  Quite a few have finished all of them already.  We’re about to embark on a reading challenge at the school and the kids get into it.

    The whole “adults” don’t read…well, I think there is a time in some adult’s lives when they don’t read as much as they did when they were younger because free time is more at a premium.  When my daughter was first born, I barely read anything except the newspaper and whatever I was critiquing for my CP.  Now, I read a book a week.  Not a lot, but I’m a slow reader, and this is in addition to newspapers, blogs, my own stuff, etc.  I read less, I’m choosier, but I do read.  I didn’t used to be choosy about books.  I read everything.  Now, not so much.

  23. 23
    Stephanie says:

    In the highly unscientific survey of my family and my boyfriend’s family, the older generation falls into this stereotype (my dad and his dad don’t read fiction; mostly they read trade magazines).  However, my brother doesn’t read much at all (the occasional Modern Drummer) and my boyfriend reads all the time.  My mom, his mom, his sister, and I all read voraciously, as well.

    The readers all read as children, and the non-readers didn’t.  *shrugs*  I think in some ways people either *are* readers or aren’t, and almost nothing can stop a reader from reading.

    And AMEN to the Golden Age of Children’s/YA Publishing!  I hope it lasts long enough to stock me up for a LONG time.

  24. 24
    kis says:

    I’m not saying any of this definitively, because half the shit I’m basing this on is stuff I read over the last 20 years, but aren’t women simply more verbal than men? I mean, the speech center in a woman’s brain is much bigger and more active than a man’s. And women have a redundant, secondary speech region, which often allows them to recover the ability to talk more quickly than men do after a stroke.

    Didn’t I read somewhere that on an average day, a man will say 500 words and a woman will say 20 000? (I don’t remember the exact numbers)

    Women just have more interest in communicating with words than men seem to. I’m sure reading comes into that as well. Most women would rather read sex than watch it. Show me one man who isn’t the exact opposite.

  25. 25
    Marianne McA says:

    Always makes me wonder – why does it matter?

    There seems a general consensus that reading is A Good Thing, and not reading A Very Dreadful Thing – but why?

    I think I said this last time the topic came up, so sorry for repeating myself, but, as long as people are literate enough to function in society – does it matter if they never read a book?

    If reading books is about enjoying stories – those stories can be told through radio, theatre, television or film. If it’s about disseminating ideas or information – as above, but add in newspapers & the internet.

    Unless you’re a publisher, why the angst?
    (And, just curious – does it translate to angst for publishers? Are fewer books sold than ten, twenty, fifty years ago?)

  26. 26
    iffygenia says:

    Didn’t I read somewhere that on an average day, a man will say 500 words and a woman will say 20 000? (I don’t remember the exact numbers)

    That’s what I was talking about—science has debunked that idea.  The woman who published the book on that difference has had to retract.

  27. 27
    Joe says:

    In our house, the fiction/non-fiction breakdown between me and my wife is the opposite of most, I think.  My wife mostly reads true crime and sociology-oriented non-fiction, while I read a metric buttload of sci-fi, fantasy, and humor (Terry Pratchett and John Hodgman FTW).  That’s not to say that we’re exclusive in our choices, though.  She’s a big fan of Christopher Moore’s fiction, and I read at least one new science book a month.  Neither one of us can sleep if we haven’t relaxed with a book for at least 15 minutes prior to bedtime. 

    I am determined to finish “Gravity’s Rainbow” before the end of the year, dammit.

  28. 28
    dl says:

    If reading is on the decline, why are bookstore chains growing by leaps & bounds?  If readership was down, publishers would be whining like the newspaper industry…

    I read oodles of fiction with an occasional “how to”, the hubby reads less but typical non-fiction or reality stuff.  All three of our teens read at various levels.  Daughter reads the most & most varied.  Youngest next with boys YA adventure type stuff & manga. 

    At one time my sister-in-law mentioned she hoped her children would grow up to be readers.  I thought they would if they saw her & dad enjoying reading…there was an “oh” and silence on the phone line.  Children are proven copy-cats.

    Liz probably has it correct.  Not so much a lack of reading, but lamenting lack of “proper” or PC reading.

    There is a definate difference in how males & females spend their leisure time.  On the average, males are more active with sports, video games, and activities.  Girls also enjoy doing…but also reading about other girls, fashion, relationships, and life!

  29. 29
    Deb says:

    I swear that same argument has been going on for at least the 20 years that I’ve been a librarian.  And I *still* don’t see it, either in the library or reflected in my current or past homes. 

    My parents always read – in fact, after he retired I don’t think I ever saw my dad without a book in his hands.  Pretty much exclusively fiction, including romance.  In fact, he was the biggest Nora Roberts junkie *ever*, and would get each NR or JDRobb book as soon as it came out and then have it done by the next day. 

    Hubby also reads, both fiction and non.  So does the boy child (the only one we have.) 

    Readers are not in danger.  There will always be dangers.  Just look at the comments here at the Bitchery!  And I’ve had so many students at the college library this week ask me where our novels are that I really don’t think we have to worry. 

    Stupid alarmists.

  30. 30
    Gabriele says:

    Lol, my father reads as much as I – probably more these days, because I spend former reading time writing, and my nephew got hooked by Rowling some years ago and now can’t be seen without a book.

    So much for statistics. They never ask me. :-)

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